FANTASY WORLDBUILDING, MONEY, MONSTERS, AND FOOD

Recently I’ve been sort of absentmindedly thinking about a Dungeons & Dragons world—and not for the first time, either. I have notebooks full of D&D worlds, a few of which even saw some play time. But what inspired this post today is the collision between worldbuilding and D&D. And the game itself does often collide with the efforts of the worldbuilder.

You know I love monsters, and monsters have always been my favorite part of D&D in general. I want a world full of monsters—every monster in every version of the Monster Manual and all the elbow room I want to create creatures of my own…

But then, as with all good worldbuilding, logic eventually intrudes.

Now, when I say “D&D,” I tend to mean Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, aka “First Edition,” and that’s because I firmly believe that the best edition of D&D is…

…the one you first played.

And I started with AD&D, back in 1979.

A scan of my own copy—an original first printing from 1979.

And in the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide are page after page of random encounter tables, which everyone I ever played D&D with used at least from time to time. Though there is a distinction made between “Uninhabited/Wilderness Areas” and “Inhabited and Patrolled Areas,” you still have a 2% chance (each), in the plains (where farms would be located), of encountering as many as six ankhegs or up to eighteen werewolves, and a 1% chance each of encountering a bullette, up to ten hill giants, a groaning spirit, as many as half a dozen weretigers, up to four manticores, or from one to four vampires. Even leaving out the other more mundane but still dangerous encounters like somewhere between twenty and two hundred bandits or at least two and maybe twenty wolves, that means, assuming you’re unlucky enough to have a random wilderness encounter in the inhabited or patrolled plains, you have a 10% chance of encountering a significantly powerful monster, or a 1% chance of running into a hostile army. Great fun for a high level party, sure, but what about the 0-level farmer with maybe two hit points trundling along from a farming village to the city with a cartload of apples? One in ten of these guys is lunch. Adding back in wolves and bandits and other hostiles it might be as much as 25%.

Would you go to work every day knowing there’s a 25% chance—even a 10% chance—that you’re not going to make it to work alive? I’d say, probably not.

So then, how does this economy work? How do you feed a city the size of, say, Waterdeep or Greyhawk or Tarantis? If you use these wilderness encounter tables… you don’t.

So then even if you’re thinking, Okay, Phil, I get it, but my D&D party aren’t 0-level farmers—let’s assume, say, these bigger monsters are only attracted to higher level characters, not farmers… Well, that makes no sense, but sure… D&D is a game and should be fun before it’s logical.

The next question, though: Can you get away with this if it’s a world you’re building not for a game you’re playing with friends but that you want to release into the wild in any form—even as an RPG setting but much less as a novel?

This goes to a question I covered to some extent in Writing Monsters: How monster-rich is your world? If it goes by the AD&D random encounter tables, probably it’ll end up as some kind of dystopian hellscape in which the bigger cities have long sense fallen to ruin due to starvation or been long been overrun by marauding gangs of hobgoblins and anyway the first ancient, huge red dragon that flies by. That, by the way, would be a fascinating world for both a game or a novel, so I’m not dismissing it.

But what if you want your RPG or fiction characters to have a city they can go to to sell all the gems they found fighting umber hulks and gelatinous cubes in a remote dungeon where they belong? Then you’re going to have to at least start to think about how to feed a city of tens of thousands of people, maybe, and using medieval technology. That means a lot of the area around that city has to be patrolled, essentially completely monster free—10% loss will not do it—and able to provide food for the city dwellers.

And think, too, about what those city dwellers eat.

There’s an interesting article by Annie Ewbank about food in fantasy novels that includes a warning against the ubiquitous stew:

As I doggedly read through the fantasy canon, I realized that the marvelous butter-pie was an outlier. Instead, heroes and heroines often ate familiar fare, even as they cast spells and rode dragons. For pages and pages, lucky characters feast on cakes and ale. Other characters only get stew, which is oddly omnipresent. In her satirical travel guide to fantasy literature, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, (Diana Wynne) Jones jokes that stew “is the staple food in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing for omelets, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming.”

Is this beef stew? If so, you need acre after acre after acre of grazing land, free of wolves, much less ankhegs, to make that affordable for the stew-loving masses. And those cattle herds are going to attract predators. A pain in the butt when those predators are wolves or coyotes, but dragons…? Omelets and baked beans would be easier, in any case!

And what of your city is on the coast, as most cities are? Then they eat seafood, right? Well, your AD&D city fishermen have a 2% chance of having to fend off a dinosaur or an ixitxachitl… actually, basically everything on the ocean encounter list will kill you, including large carnivorous whales and giant crabs. Deadliest Catch indeed!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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OUT OF THE LONG AGO: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 14

Back to my ongoing series of posts where I’ve been reading a single issue of Weird Tales from 1925. If you want to read along in order you can go back to the beginning and start here. This week we’ll press on with…

“Out of the Long Ago” was written by Seabury Quinn, an author I’ve heard quite a bit about in my studies of the history of pulp fiction. He was well known and quite extensively published over a span or some forty years, but faded into obscurity while contemporaries like H.P. Lovecraft (who, by the way, also appears in this issue), Robert E. Howard, and others continue to be read today. “Out of the Long Ago” was one of Seabury Quinn’s earliest published stories in a career that continued into the 60s. In fact, according to Hellnotes

Who was the most prolific contributor to Weird Tales magazine? Was it H.P. Lovecraft? No. Robert Howard? Nope. It was Seabury Quinn, who contributed 165 stories to “the unique magazine,” including the popular series featuring the French occult detective Dr. Jules de Grandin and his sidekick, Dr. Samuel Trowbridge.

The Robert E. Howard site On An Underwood No. 5  published a fun exchange of letters between Lovecraft and Howard regarding Seabury Quinn. First, from Lovecraft:

I met Quinn twice during my stay in N Y, & find him exceedingly intelligent & likeable. He is 44 years old, but looks rather less than that. Increasingly stocky, dark, & with a closely clipped moustache. He is first of all a shrewd business man, & freely affirms that he manufactures hokum to order for market demands—in contrast to the artist, who seeks sincere expression as the result of an obscure inward necessity.

…then Howard:

Their capacity for grisly details seems unlimited, when the cruelty is the torturing of some naked girl, such as Quinn’s stories abound in—no reflection intended on Quinn; he knows what they want and gives it to them. The torture of a naked writhing wretch, utterly helpless—and especially when of the feminine sex amid voluptuous surroundings—seems to excite keen pleasure in some people who have a distaste for wholesale butchery in the heat and fury of a battlefield.

Okay, then… But this story has none of the things Howard was railing about there, so clearly that side of Quinn’s writing developed along with the general salaciousness of the pulps themselves. As early as 1925, things hadn’t gotten quite so “spicy” yet, and the younger Quinn was apparently still finding his legs not just as an author but a manufacturer of hokum. And Lovecraft says that like it’s a bad thing… You could carve that on my tombstone and my spirit would rest easy.

Anyway, “Out of the Long Ago” is written in epistolary form, which means the story is told as a series of letters, journal entries, and/or other fictional documents that allow the characters to tell their own stories in their own voices at some remove from the action. It’s not an uncommon form, though pretty much out of fashion now. If you’ve read the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, you’ve read at least one epistolary novel. In this case we’re reading the diary of Prof. Simeon Warrener.

It’s also an old fashioned convention to leave off the exact year: Sept. 20, 19— prevents the story from being dated, maybe? So we’re meant to believe that this was last September? Or anywhere up to Sept. 20, 1999 anyway? Not sure, but it’s definitely not the first time I’ve seen this.

The first letter reveals some of the weakness of the epistolary form. We’re treated to what feels to me a dry recitation of who the other characters in the story will be, and their basic relationship to Prof. Warrener. But so far, nothing has actually happened, flying in the face of the typical pulp story that tends to open with a bang. It may well be fair to say that, somewhere around 1925, we’re seeing a transition point between a less straightforward fiction of manners and the still nascent realist streak that the hardboiled writers who were only starting to develop would bring not just to the pulps but what we can see as the ongoing pulp tradition epitomized by the likes of James Patterson and Lee Child.

The limits of the epistolary show up in the second entry where Prof. Warrener tells us what Alice tells him, which to my ear comes off as hearsay. As readers we’re being pushed back from the professor’s experience of that moment, and even more so from Alice’s, hearing about it after the fact in a second layer of past tense. Honestly, it makes me feel too much like I’m experiencing the writing and not the story.

In third person, past tense, Quinn could have gotten into Alice’s experience of the moment, in the moment, in her POV. Then later, at the party, fast forward with something as easy as: Alice told the professor all about the strange man who’d chased her in Cag na Gith. That way, we, the readers, are in the action, and feel what Alice feels in that moment of fear, which is always more interesting than hearing her tell someone else who may or may not (and in this case, mostly not) have any particularly interesting emotional reaction to it. Even if we go through that with Alice and she’s later dismissed by the professor, suspense is built because we know something Warrener doesn’t—that this was true and scary, and he needs to pay attention.

The monster as described by Alice is scary, indeed. I’ve never encountered the synonym bugwolf for werewolf, but it’s groovy. I promise to appropriate it if I ever write a werewo—I mean, bugwolf story myself!

Once Prof. Warrener gets to Cag na Gith, the writing really opens up and takes on the style of first person narrative that tends to mark the better epistolary stories. His description of the town is fantastic and sets a joyfully grim tone.

See how early the horror “trope” that says the locals know not to go to the scary place or do a particular thing, yet the protagonist gleefully ignores their advice and angers the local bugwolf or releases the demonic horde or otherwise lends credence to their “superstitions” made it’s way into the genre? M.M. Owen addressed this in his article “Our Age of Horror” as a sort of cultural conservatism:

In general terms, the best way to survive a horror setting is to be supremely, boringly sensible: don’t talk to strangers, don’t stay the night in a foreign town, don’t go to the aid of anyone who looks sick, don’t go into that crumbling old building. If a very attractive stranger tries to seduce you, it is almost definitely a trap. Respect tradition, do not commit sacrilege, listen to the advice of elderly locals. At the heart of a lot of horror is a conservative craving for the predictable and the known.

Don’t dig around the dolmen or the old quarry. What part of that do you not understand, you liberal academic elitist asshole, Prof. Warrener? Stir up th’ bogles an’ th’ bugwolves at yer peril!

But seriously, to me this is not a bug(wolf) in the horror genre but a feature. The horror story depends on someone not being socially or culturally conservative. Like many of the best horror stories, “Out of the Long Ago” depends on what I call the persistence of the logical—where at least one primary character is steadfastly unwilling to believe that anything supernatural is happening. And Prof. Warrener here is a prime example of the persistence of the logical in action. Without it, the story would have ended with Alice’s scary story at the party.

Now, because it’s a pulp magazine from 1925…

Casual racism alert:

The half-mythical story of some remote ancestor of Frank’s who married a Mohawk woman in the days when Boston Common was a cow pasture is a standing joke among his friends, and Alice declared she was addressing the charming little ballade to the drop of redskin blood in him.

Certainly she succeeded in making him a temporary aborigin, for he was red as a boiled lobster from collar to hair before she brought the song to a close.

Well, Seabury Quinn was from Washington D.C. Still, the fact that his Native American heritage gives Frank the necessary strength to protect poor Alice from the jaws of the vicious bugwolf redeems that…?

And our institutionalized sexism alert:

Thankfully, Alice showed up at the dig to cook for them after the superstitious old boarding house matron kicked them out. How could three grown men possibly be expected to arrange their own food for God’s sake? That kind of talk might stir up daemon-rabbits and bugweasels! And anyway, her being there gives her a chance to be charmed by her suitor’s wild, violent rage on her behalf, leading to the story’s final line:

And Alice Frasanet, fox-trotting, bridge-playing, tea-drinking Alice Frasanet, laid her fluffy, empty little head against his breast.

You had me at repeatedly stabbing the bugwolf while screaming like a savage redskin.

That last bit aside, and despite a slow start and the inherent limitations of the epistolary form, I liked this story. I’d like to read more from Seabury Quinn, and there’s lots to read, though I understand that finding it all may be a bit of a challenge. Still, what we saw here was a prolific author at the beginning of a long career, showcasing some clever ideas, deft turn of phrase, and the manners and culture of his time, warts and all.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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THAT IS A WORD THAT CAN BE CUT MOST OF THE TIME THAT YOU USE IT

Not every sentence you write has to be as short as possible, we don’t all have to try to pretend to be Ernest Hemingway—or any other author but ourselves. Still, I see the word that used not improperly but too often.

Believe it or not, this exceedingly common word can also be exceedingly complicated once you start looking at it, and this week our dive into that won’t pretend to be an exhaustive study of the subject. Like a lot of things I write about here when it gets to the craft of writing, or things like grammar and usage, I’m not trying to impose strict rules on you, but instead hope to sensitize you to common problems, including problem words, so you start to think about them.

Like many words in the English language, that isn’t only one thing—it serves more than one function. That can be a demonstrative pronoun, a demonstrative adjective (or adverb, but we’ll leave that off for now), a conjunction, or a relative pronoun.

Demonstrative Pronoun

A demonstrative pronoun points directly to something that comes immediately before it, though in creative writing it might instead point to something that comes directly after it.

“What was all that about?”

This depends on some previous information, following some demonstration of what the character speaking means by “that,” or is immediately followed by some explanation, even if what follows explains that another character doesn’t know (or won’t admit to knowing) what the first character is talking about, like: “What do you mean?”

But usually your readers know what “that” refers to—a character exhibiting ill temper, the appearance of some strange sound, the end of an argument, and so on. For me, this is the most common and most “acceptable” use of the word since it stands in for repetitive information. So if this character comes in at the end of an argument and one of the participants storms out, she could ask, “What were you guys arguing about?” and that’s fine—people say that—but we might know exactly, via the context of the previously shown argument, what she means by simply asking “What was that all about?” That, too, is a sentence I’ve said myself—countless times.

Demonstrative Adjective

A demonstrative adjective points out a specific person or thing:

“Why did you Photoshop me out of that picture of us?”

The sentence above refers to a specific picture. This is also a perfectly acceptable usage—it’s the way real people talk—assuming the person spoken to knows what picture the speaker is referring to. As always, of course, context is king. We aren’t writing one sentence stories, so clearly there has to be some description of the picture, something relevant about someone being Photoshopped out, and so on. If more context is required, the sentence would have to be more detailed:

“Why did you Photoshop me out of the picture of us at your dad’s restaurant?”

And though the above could be replaced with that and still be grammatically correct, as a semi-that hater I purposely chose the to avoid another that, keeping more of my allotment of thats for later.

Conjunction

A conjunction connects sentences or clauses, or coordinate words that are part of the same clause. You remember these from Schoolhouse Rock!

It’s not that I want you to blindly delete it.

“Omission of the conjunction that is acceptable, not only in informal contexts… it is normally retained in formal writing but is sometimes omitted in informal contexts…” says The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage Third Edition), Edited by R.W. Burchfield.

My grievance with that in many of it’s use as a conjunction is it suggests unnecessary complication, and with it a sense of passivity to the writing. Here’s where I want to start cutting that. But as with all “problem words” it’s not as easy as simply blindly deleting it—never do anything blindly if you can help it. Instead, look objectively—as objectively as you can—at the sentence and consider rewriting in to be more directive:

I don’t want you to blindly delete it.

This is more active, as is anything that avoids the idea of telling someone you don’t want them to think you don’t want them to do something. That will always be more confusing than simply stating what you want or don’t want. That said, you may want a particular character to speak exactly like that on purpose… and that character will probably be someone everyone else at least finds irritating.

Relative Pronoun

A relative pronoun connects a clause to a noun, and describes or modifies the noun in the process:

I’m not one of those editors that pick at every grammatical nit.

This is another opportunity to write around the relative pronoun to simplify the statement, assuming the text around it provides adequate context, like the fact that I’m an editor:

I don’t pick at every grammatical nit.

My gripe with the word that often comes from the correct but over abundant use of the word, which to me shows a degree of laziness in the writing. That laziness doesn’t tend to make itself known with one or two occurrences, but once the “that habit” forms it’s not just the occasionally too complex sentence but one after another after another that can add up to difficulties.

That should be about enough of that!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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A LOOK AT THE HORROR WRITING INTENSIVE

It’s no accident that Stephen King is one of the world’s best-selling authors. He knows what scares us—and it isn’t just kids and clowns—and he knows how to use words to invoke that fear in the same way a horror movie director uses lighting and editing. In my two-week course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King we look at each of those two vital elements: knowing what scares our readers, and knowing how to use words to bring that fear to life. We’ll look at examples from Stephen King and other great horror authors to take a deep dive into both the why and the how of writing horror.

In the first session we focus on ideas and outline—just enough to get you started writing. Believe it or not, getting an idea for a story is the easy part. It’s all the words that get you from I think this could be scary to “I loved your story—it scared the crap out of me!” that’s the hard part. So this first session is a little light on “Where do you get your ideas?” (Who knows!) and instead focuses in on how to develop that germ of an idea into just enough of an outline to get you started actually writing—and that’s your first assignment.

But there are shorter exercises along the way, like:

Sit for five minutes (set a timer!) and make a list of everything that scares you—write as fast as you can and don’t over-think it! At the end of that five minutes, put the list away then come back to it twenty-four hours later and rank them in order of most scary to least scary. The top five are where you should focus your efforts. If it scares you, your readers will pick up on that and be scared along with you.

Stephen King’s greatest talent, and the biggest reason he’s been so successful for so long, is that he writes stories about people—people who live right next door to you. I could be any of these characters, so we really understand these people, and that’s no accident. In this course we keep our focus on characters.

You can’t just tell your readers, “Okay, be scared now—this is scary,” you have to show a character being scared, confronting the horrible unknown—throw them into it all the way, and make sure there’s always something personally at stake for them. Keep these three questions close at hand, and think about them for all of your major characters:

  • Why do they care?
  • What do they have to lose?
  • What do they hope to gain?

Having identified what scares us, and having all the outline we need to get started, in session two we get into the nuts and bolts of how to “write scary.”

Every writing teacher and editor says “show, don’t tell,” but what does that mean exactly, especially for the horror author? In On Writing Stephen King wrote:

Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy.

And of course he’s right, but there are techniques we can learn to make it, if not easier, then more effective, easier to read if not to write. And remember, your reader is the most important person in any work of fiction. It’s your readers’ experience that you need to pay the strictest attention to. Especially for supernatural effects and monsters, we (your readers) need to experience how this strange thing works, this thing that isn’t a part of our normal understanding of the world. Otherwise there’s no suspense. We don’t know what to be afraid of unless you show us at least some of the potential damage it can cause—and damage to a person, not a thing. This is what shows your readers what’s at stake, physically and mentally, for your characters.

Over-writing is the horror author’s worst nemesis—and Stephen King is great at not doing it. In On Writing he advises:

“For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.”

Pulling a lot more advice together we get to our second and final writing assignment: a 2000-word short story. You can use, if you like, the outline you created for the first assignment, and you should try to incorporate as much as possible from discussions in both sessions.

And finally, we end with another Stephen King quote from On Writing:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The next session of Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King starts up this Thursday, April 4—but if you’re reading this later, still follow this link, a new session may well be coming up soon.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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WINGS OF POWER: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 13

This week we’ll hop back into my series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that can be read online. If you haven’t been following along, feel free to go back to the beginning and start here. Or simply join in with…

Wings of Power is the first part of a serialized novel. The serialized novel is something we don’t see much anymore, but was common practice going back, more or less, to the beginning of the novel itself. It was certainly a common thing in the pulps, when there were very few if any other outlets for novel length genre fiction. It wasn’t really until the rise of the mass market paperback in the 40s and 50s that genre publishing as we know it today began to take over from the pulps and short stories started to give way to novels as the primary vehicle for science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance… the best selling genres in present day publishing.

This does present a bit of an issue for me, though, since how do I break down what’s only the first third of a longer work? While I think about that, I’ll Google the author, Lady Anne Bonny…

In the book Science Fiction: The Early Years, there’s a little synopsis of Wings of Power, but under the author’s name: “No information.”

And that’s pretty much it.

Obviously, this is a pseudonym, evoking the infamous 18th century pirate by the same name. I can’t even be sure that the author is a woman… no information at all. And again, this was not at all uncommon. There were pulp authors who didn’t want to use their real names because they were reserving those for “the slicks” and didn’t want to sully their literary careers by being associated with the lowly pulps. There were authors who wrote so prolifically that editors asked them to write under one or more aliases so it didn’t appear that a single issue of a magazine was written by the same person—even if that was more or less true in some cases. And then there were authors who had one name for science fiction, one for romance, another for westerns, etc. So who is Lady Anne Bonny? For all I know she was really F. Scott Fitzgerald…

To the story, then… If we won’t be able to read the other two thirds of Wings of Power, let’s focus more on craft than story, and pull out some examples, positive and negative.

POV

If there’s one rule I believe we should all follow, it’s one scene, one POV. The concept of “third person omniscient” will come off as old fashioned. Readers will feel, even if they can’t articulate it, that something is wrong with your writing if you jump from one character’s head to another within a single scene. Readers want to—and I’d go so far as to say that readers need to—inhabit the experience of a single character in order to feel grounded to the story. That doesn’t mean you have to have only one POV character. I’m all for multiple POVs—but not within the same scene. If you need to jump to another character, a simple scene break is all you need—a few asterisks to indicate a change in POV and/or time and/or place.

In 1925, this rule was not quite so universally known, much less applied, hence the rather beautifully atmospheric opening of Wings of Power, firmly in the point of view of the unnamed “girl,” that then smash-cuts to the mad scientist at the beginning of the last paragraph of the first page (page 77). “At the same moment” is not good enough, but:

…the third finger of one of which the ring gave out its strange emanation.

***

At the same moment, professor Kurt Marquarri turned…

Easy enough.

But then there’s something I’ve been noticing not just in this story but in other pulp magazines I’ve seen: scene breaks—you’ll see the empty line and the drop cap at the top of page 82—come in seemingly at random. “The girl faltered for a moment,” clearly follows immediately after “…and he crouched as if in a vise.” There is no reason for a break here, or on page 84 when the two bad guys read the letter. I’ll blame this on the editor, not the author.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

I would have liked to have seen Joan’s dream of the yellow butterflies instead of hearing her tell Susan about it. I know that that advice, “show, don’t tell,” has been offered up so often for so long it just sounds pat, but it’s of vital importance in writing active, engaging fiction. If you find yourself typing some version of:

“Tell it to Susan, then, my wee lamb. Tell it to Susan, and you’ll feel less frightened of it.”

…stop! And go back and show it first, follow that line of dialog with, “Joan told Susan all about the dream,” then show the next scene!

Another form of telling is when a character says something he or she already knows, or says it to someone else who already knows it. The former is now so archaic, I’m happy to report that I can’t think of a time I’ve seen something like:

“The greatest scientific discovery in the world,” he gloated, muttering to himself after his usual habit; “and I alone am its possessor!”

And what’s up with that semi-colon?

As far as a character telling someone something that person already knows, which I refer to as “Soap Opera Dialog,” how about:

“My father, as you know, was a very great scientist, the greatest of his day.”

This is another warning sign: “as you know.” Never type those words!

ATMOSPHERE & DESCRIPTION

Whoever he or she was, Lady Anne Bonny wrote beautifully when she wanted to. That whole opening page is gorgeous. She’s not afraid to settle into a space and if it sometimes gets a bit purple—and to my mind it only very rarely does—it gives this story of a mad scientist and his nefarious creation a level of literary depth that stands strangely at odds with the material.

The pulps tend to be known for “bad” writing, and though sure, we’ve already seen some stories that were obviously padded or rushed. But alongside authors who started in the pulps and emerged into serious careers are authors like whoever the heck Lady Anne Bonny really was, who display real talent but (as far as I know) never found a wider or longer-lasting audience. And that’s a shame.

Hell, maybe this is F. Scott Fitzgerald, ham-handedly trying to wedge a mad scientist into his voice.

But even then the technobabble in this story gives me a feeling of pure nerd joy. Please don’t allow the science fiction genre to “grow out of” that. I need my life to contain zodium rays, zeta-rays, uranite… but at the same time the author does seem to show at least a passing familiarity with the still young science of psychiatry.

On a darker note (no pun intended), lest you forget that this was 1925 and published in the generally all-white pulps… the word “quadroon,” means “a person who is one-quarter black by descent.” I had to look it up, having never heard this in my life. And, apparently, it was seen as a handicap:

He fingered the gold circlets that lit up the ocher of her skin. Mariquita laughed lazily. Those quadroon beauties knew their day of glory to be brief. If the little hunchback could not give her gold enough, then she would go back to Charlotte Amalie, where ships came in from all the world. That port in the West Indies meant wealth to the woman clever enough to make use of her beauty.

Well, she can always go back to the islands and be a prostitute. Because clearly one-quarter black women have few other options…

That, and some creepiness around women and relationships is starting to make me think that Lady Anne Bonny wasn’t really a lady, but then there were female authors who either wrote to the expectations of the editors, or saw their stories rewritten by said editors, to push them in that direction, so it’s hard to say. Still:

“Young, pale and in mourning,” growled Quinn. “A widow, I suppose. Tell me, Miss Thompson, is she pretty?”

And this seems to be the good guy? Creepy…

Finally, we end this first third of Wings of Power with the appropriate cliffhanger… to be continued…

 

—Philip Athans

 

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CRITICS, REVIEWS, AND REALITY

I hate the idea of belaboring any point here, much less my general dislike, distrust, and dismissal of all things classed as “reviews” or “criticism,” but having seen a few things pop up on my “radar” over the last couple weeks I thought maybe one more quick stab at trying to get you to stop reading or writing reviews…

Or is that really what I’m trying to do?

As much as I hate the idea of belaboring a point, I hate more the idea of strident either/or proclamations: never do this, always do that, to my mind, leads, one way or another, to one form or another of fascism. Political, intellectual, religious… creative.

That got me thinking, maybe I need a wider view of the whole book review thing.

In his afterword to the 75th Anniversary Edition of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Christopher Ricks wrote:

We have become too aware of the fact that great works of art are often met with philistine outrage, and this half-truth is often twisted into a gullible supposition: that outrage must mean that what we have here is a great work of art. Either way, we have accrued a healthy distrust of reviewers. Yet meanwhile, insufficiently acknowledged, there is the other half-truth: that much of the greatest criticism appears when a work first appears, with a critical immediacy that gets hold of the right things even if by the wrong end.

This gave me pause because the paragraph starts with me 100% with him then ends with something that really made me cringe. I tend to think that the best view of anything comes with some distance, but in the end this is a version of comparing apples to oranges. What people thought of, say, The Catcher in the Rye, immediately after its publication may very well be quite different from what people decades later find in it, positive or negative. The history of literature is filled with books that were immensely popular in their day then utterly forgotten, or considered substandard on publication only to later be held up as classics.

Still, I know I’m not alone in my suspicion of critics, sharing the opinion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

I am more and more convinced that whenever one has to vent an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth gathering up. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality, and, from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is vanity.

This is why you’ll see book recommendations from me here, but no reviews. But maybe there’s some common ground, some set of criteria that can help us separate the useful review from the harmful one.

(Poet W.H.) Auden considers six key duties of the critic to the reader, one or more of which each good piece of criticism should fulfill:

  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

I can get behind that, but despair of spreading that out to a generation of social media natives who seem to exist only to review. In her frankly terrifying article for Wired, “How Amazon’s Algorithms Curated a Dystopian Bookstore,” Renee Diresta double down on my own recent concerns over algorithmic curation and shined a light on just how awful the results of crowd sourced reviews can be:

Over in Amazon’s Oncology category, a book with a Best Seller label suggests juice as an alternative to chemotherapy. For the term “cancer” overall, coordinated review brigading appears to have ensured that “The Truth About Cancer,” a hodgepodge of claims about, among other things, government conspiracies, enjoys 1,684 reviews and front-page placement. A whopping 96 percent of the reviews are 5 stars—a measure that many Amazon customers use as a proxy for quality. However, a glance at Reviewmeta, a site that aims to help customers assess whether reviews are legitimate, suggests that over 1,000 may be suspicious in terms of time frame, language, and reviewer behavior.

Once relegated to tabloids and web forums, health misinformation and conspiracies have found a new megaphone in the curation engines that power massive platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Search, trending, and recommendation algorithms can be gamed to make fringe ideas appear mainstream. This is compounded by an asymmetry of passion that leads truther communities to create prolific amounts of content, resulting in a greater amount available for algorithms to serve up… and, it seems, resulting in real-world consequences.

It’s time to say this out loud: crowd sourced reviews used to push any product, absolutely including books, has such monumental downsides that it’s now impossible to see the upside. Either the computer is pushing things at us that force us into an echo chamber of our own algorithmically determined interests and opinions, thereby sharply and artificially delineating our life experience, or some human agency is interposing themselves into that process to cram their fringe agenda down our throats.

Like any tool, a book review must be used responsibly and with care—and the same is true of restaurant reviews, or any review for anything… and we now see and have an opportunity to post public reviews of anything and everything online. And any one of those reviews could be the work of someone who, let’s face it, is just plain crazy, or not too smart, or otherwise lacking in specific expertise; or the work of a person or organization with a specific agenda to either glorify or torpedo the thing being reviewed. Knowing that, how can any of them be trusted?

 

—Philip Athans

 

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READING AND WRITING AS THERAPY

I won’t bore you with the details but I’ve been working on my own mental health lately following a couple years of, well… not working on my own mental health. And it’s got me not just thinking about myself—where I am now, where I came from, how I got here, and so on—but about how those issues match up with my own writing, and in particular, how little of that I’ve actually done in the last couple years or so.

Have I been depressed because I’m not writing, or not writing because I’ve been depressed?

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day.”

Who am I to argue with Kurt Vonnegut?

And he’s not the only one to urge the regular practice of writing to combat, say, depression. Emily V. Gordon, when asked in a Hollywood ReporterWriter Roundtable if writing is therapeutic said, a bit more cautiously:

It can be. It depends what you’re writing about. Some days you don’t want it to be, and some days you feel like you’re exorcising a demon. But you don’t want everything to be this very intense, cathartic experience. You want to connect to it emotionally but not have it wring you out.

I have definitely tried, in the past, to exorcise a few personal demons via fiction, and maybe the fact that I’ve more or less stopped doing that in the past couple years is responsible for why I’ve been struggling with depression in a more acute way over that time. But starting 2019 with a clearer picture of where I am and what needs to happen to improve my life I’ve started on the right track and even over the course of last year started reading more, at least—fifty-two books (not counting the many editing projects that year) read for pleasure in 2018, and I’m on track already to do the same this year.

We all know by now that writers have to read, and that has helped me start to crawl back to writing, but what of the therapeutic value of reading?

Tim Parks asked the question, “Does Literature Help Us Live?” in the New York Review of Books:

Generalization is treacherous, but let’s posit that at the center of most modern storytelling, in particular most literary storytelling, lies the struggling self, or selves, individuals seeking some kind of definition or stability in a world that appears hostile to such aspirations: life is precarious, tumultuous, fickle, and the self seeks in vain, or manages only with great effort, to put together a personal narrative that is, even briefly, satisfying. Of course, the story can end in various ways, or simply stop at some convenient grace-point; happy endings are not entirely taboo, though certainly frowned on in the more elevated spheres of serious literary fiction. And even when things do come to a pleasing conclusion, it is either shot through with irony or presented as merely a new beginning, with everything still to fight for.

He goes on to conclude:

In short, at the core of the literary experience, as it is generally construed and promoted, is the pathos of this unequal battle and of a self inevitably saddened—though perhaps galvanized, too, or, in any event, tempered and hardened—by the systematic betrayal of youth’s great expectations. Life promises so much, but then slips through one’s fingers.

Boy, isn’t that true? But the goal of fiction isn’t necessarily all grim, and Julie Sedivy makes a convincing case in “Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?” for its long term benefit to not just the individual mental health or even evolution of a single reader, but in the forward progress of cultures over time:

Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

I won’t try to take any responsibility for the cultural growth of the human race, but this is a nice reminder, at the right time, that what we do as storytellers matters—to ourselves, to an individual unknown reader out there somewhere, and to an ever-evolving culture as a whole. And in the meantime, getting back to writing will, I know, have a positive effect on my own mental health, the same way that getting back to exercising will have a positive effect on my physical health.

And let me end with a gentle reminder: If you’re not feeling yourself, if you’re struggling with depression or other issues, go get help. For a long time I didn’t, and that was time—a long time—wasted. There is help out there for everyone.

Here’s a link that might at least help you get started.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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