30 March 2007

The British Empires' Rebellious Colonies

Earlier this week I wrote about the rebirth of the British Empire in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series and Philip Reeve’s Larklight (which will officially become a series in October). I harped on how both authors seem to shy away from awkward elements of the real UK’s imperial history: oppression of peoples in south Asia and Africa, border-drawing in the Mideast, trade wars in China, etc.

But there’s one region of the old British Empire that Stroud and Reeve have no problem depicting under the control of their fantastic Londons. And what part would that be? America!

The mere mention of American colonies signals that each book occurs in a fantasy world, of course. Nevertheless, America remains a source of rebellion and trouble for Britain. In the Cybils-winning Ptolemy’s Gate, a North American war for independence is draining the resources of the magicians’ regime in London, just as the nascent USA’s revolution did for Lord George Germain’s government around 1780. It’s unclear at the end of the book whether a more democratic government in London would maintain that struggle, give it up, or reach some accommodation with the rebels.

In Larklight, young narrator Art Mumby writes of American colonies in the first pages, indicating that they’re still firmly part of Britain's Empire in this 1851. But later, when discussing who’s tried to steal away Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemical secrets, Art lists “Frenchmen and Russians and rebel Americans.” The first two were Britain’s rivals for influence in the early 1800s (before the emergence of a united Germany), but the last reflects a perception of the American character that extends even into this fantasy world.

I can’t help but see a bit of national wish-fulfillment in how these books show Britain still ruling America, especially in a decade when many people on both sides of the Atlantic have perceived the opposite. The American market has been very lucrative for British fantasy authors, but there’s bound to be a little ambivalence, isn’t there?

29 March 2007

Let's Get Messy

What's the deal with British book designers? With a few exceptions (Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses), I much prefer American covers. But that's not just a mild liking. In many cases UK presses' choices just baffle me. I recall hearing a sales manager suggest that the same aesthetic behind British book jackets also infuses British fast-food breakfasts.

Here's the latest example, the UK children's edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This book is supposed to be the culminating battle of good versus evil, right? And the young protagonists' coming-of-age? Instead, it looks like Ron, Harry, and Hermione have just won big on Fun House. I expect to see a mulleted J. D. Roth clapping on the spine.

The American wraparound jacket produces a greater sense of foreboding and confrontation, though the caption that occurs to me is, "Stop Snitchin'!" Surely Harry and Voldemort won't resolve all their differences in a quidditch stadium, will they?

28 March 2007

More of the British Empire in Larklight

Like Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, Philip Reeve's Larklight revisits the British Empire. Indeed, it revisits that empire during the Victorian period, as it approached its height, and then takes it even higher.

In this "steampunk for punks" science fiction, not only does the Sun never set on the British Empire, but that empire extends to both sides of the Sun, from Mercury to the moons of Jupiter.

Like Stroud, Reeve explores the tensions of empire by showing the British elite dealing with extraterrestrial beings, but shies away from portraying how the same empire might have worked on Earth. We never know quite how much terrestrial territory Reeve's Victoria rules. We meet Sir Richard Burton, but he's exploring the heavens, not the Earth. The perennial "servant problem" seems to have been solved with robots, thus requiring no vulnerable underclass.

Larklight offers one glimpse of Earthly racism, but only in the previous generation: an aristocratic young Englishman fell in love with a black Caribbean woman, and his family disinherited him. The couple then rocketed off to a remote space colony to raise their family.

One of their children, Jack Havock, has ended up confined at a scientific institute in London which also collects extraterrestrial beings. But I recall no hint that the imperial elite locked up Jack because of his parentage. Rather, those scientists did so because his parents had turned into trees. (It's a long story.)

For all its young narrators' pleasure in being British, Larklight ends up championing universal equality. Almost all the intelligent lifeforms we meet end up forming one happy band: humans of all backgrounds, Jack's fellow inmates, Shapers--everyone, it seems, but ten-legged white spiders. Jack and one of those upper-class English narrators fall in love, but her family make no complaints about the prospect of a "mixed marriage" (nor are they in any position to do so). Larklight readers thus get to cherry-pick Victorian values, believing in progress but not prejudices.

Of course, today's enlightened British authors can’t treat empire as a Good Thing, even if that empire has been sugar-coated. Reeve undercuts the pillars of Victorian Britain, starting with Victoria and Albert themselves, who end up hiding under a rowboat. The Duke of Wellington (who really should be the conqueror of Europe and autocratic Prime Minister in Stroud's series) makes a cameo appearance, grumpy and superannuated. The Crystal Palace of 1851, the height of Victorian science and industry, turns out to be a mere illusion of human progress.

Larklight's British Empire may be larger and stronger than what really existed on Earth in the 1800s, as well as more welcoming. But we still mustn't believe as whole-heartedly as the Victorians that it was a Good Thing.

27 March 2007

Bartimaeus and the British Empire

In the past year I’ve written about nationalist themes in an Irish fantasy series and an American fantasy series. But what of the British, who so dominate the genre? Does any nationalist self-fashioning poke through in their fantasy novels?

Jonathan Stroud has acknowledged one quality he finds characteristically British in his Bartimaeus trilogy. This is a bit from the terrific discussion at the State Library of Victoria that I pointed to earlier:

Michael Pryor: Now the Bartimaeus trilogy is interestingly a very political novel with the magicians, the non-magicians disenfranchised. So there is a class struggle going on here between the aristocratic magicians and the commoners. It’s British socialism? Is this a reaction to Thatcher’s ’80s? What’s going on here?

Stroud: Well, it--yes, it probably is, actually. Yes, I think that somebody did note that all British books, certainly all British children’s books, you can look at in terms of the class system and it’s definitely true.
In that exchange the two authors refer to the books’ struggle between magicians and commoners which culminates in a democratic rebellion against the magical oligarchy, and specifically to the rivalry between protagonists Nathaniel and Kitty.

But in fact the deepest conflict in the Bartimaeus books isn’t between magician and commoner but between magician and djinni. And I’d say that’s not so much a class system as a colonial one. The wizards exploit the resources and bodies of the djinn they can control. Those djinn are a different race of being from an Other Place, ancient and yet bound to serve their British masters.

It’s notable that Bartimaeus and his magical peers include no leprechauns, elves, ogres, or the other enchanting creatures from European fairy tales. He doesn’t tell many stories about Arthur, Archimedes, Daedalus, Roland, Siegfried, Heracles, or other European heroes of the distant past. Instead, Bartimaeus talks at length about Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia, Solomon of Israel, Ptolemy of Egypt. He speaks of tasks in Uruk (Sumer), Karnak (Egypt), and--when forced to--Jericho (Palestine). The amulet that provides the title for the first book comes from Uzbekistan.

The main “made in Europe” exceptions to that pattern are the mercenary’s seven-league boots and the golems of The Golem’s Eye--but the latter are a Jewish legend, outside the European mainstream. Bartimaeus gets busy in Europe only during the Renaissance: Faust, Tycho Brahe, Tower of Pisa, Prague as capital of the Holy Roman Empire. He also refers to work in eastern North America at unspecified times, but really his heart and history lie in what we used to call the Near East and now call the Mideast.

Those roots are apparent in the terms Bartimaeus and his peers use to describe themselves. The words djinni, afrit, and marid all come from pre-Islamic Arabic. They appear in the Koran, and “genie” came into western culture through literary translations, not folktales. (“Imp” is Germanic, on the other hand, but its magical meaning is a late arrival, less than half a millennium old.)

Despite his books’ picture of British governors exploiting Asian power, Stroud seems to steer away from addressing parallels to real history. In resurrecting the British Empire as a magical superpower, he emphasizes its power over continental Europe and North America only. The Golem’s Eye depicts a Czech immigrant underclass in London, but we never see the Asian, African, and Caribbean minorities of today’s Britain. The Amulet of Samarkand makes a brief mention of weavers in Basra toiling to create a magnificent carpet, but the books aren’t clear about whether their British Empire is contiguous with “all the pink bits” that used to appear on British school maps. Perhaps that past is too recent and too awkward.

A conflicted attitude toward the British Empire may help to explain the series’ emphasis on William E. Gladstone. In the trilogy, he’s the greatest of British magicians and Prime Ministers, the conqueror of the Continent, the man who imprisoned marids in his staff. In real life, Gladstone was a domestic reformer who also came to back home rule in Ireland; he opposed most of his rival Benjamin Disraeli’s imperialism toward India and the Near East.

In the end, of course, the Bartimaeus trilogy is not imperialistic. Stroud’s political sympathies clearly lie with the djinn and commoners, not the magicians who built and run the empire. The series ends hopefully with the prospect of political reform for the humans in Britain, which might also lead to less exploitation of the beings from the Other Place. And, as I wrote before, the voice that dominates the series is that of Bartimaeus, one of the exploited. Therefore, I believe Stroud’s trilogy can fairly be grouped with other British post-colonial fiction.

TOMORROW: The British Empire revived another way in Larklight.

26 March 2007

Would You Like Big Staring Eyes with That?

McDonald's® has started to sell Madame Alexander® Wizard of Oz® figurines, inspired by the MGM movie, as premiums in its Happy Meals®. These are apparently offered as alternatives to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle® dolls. Some websites indicate that girls receive a toy from one set, boys from another, but I doubt McDonald's® would officially court protest that way. Rather, I suspect they recognize some American parents still aren't ready to hop on the turtle bandwagon.

I saw larger versions of the Madame Alexander® dolls at last year's Munchkin Convention. It was interesting to hear about how the company operates (the young ladies from marketing always referred to “Madame”®), but frankly the product creeps me out.

25 March 2007

Pullman Panel Promotion

Following breadcrumbs laid through the woods at Educating Alice, I found Saestina's report on a panel in Oxford where Philip Pullman participated in promoting the upcoming film adaptation of his novel Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.

The most interesting tidbits, I thought, had to do with Pullman's creative process while writing the books, lo those few years ago. He's mentioned the inspiration for the trilogy title before:

His initial inspiration for the book was the landscape of hell that Milton describes in the first two books of Paradise Lost, which is also where the title His Dark Materials comes from. The original working title for the trilogy was The Golden Compasses, also from a quotation from Paradise Lost.
That would be from Book VII:
Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure;
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just circumference, O World!
Saestina's description of Pullman's remarks continues:
When Northern Lights went to the US editor, he thought the [original series] title was a reference to the alethiometer, changed it to a singular compass and made it the title of the first book instead of the trilogy as a whole. This is, apparently, the same editor who changed the name of the first Harry Potter book from Philosopher's Stone to Sorceror's Stone, which Pullman said, "obviously makes no sense."
Not to quibble, but the US publishers of the Harry Potter series and Pullman's retitled (and soon to be renumbered) trilogy are different companies. In fact, to confuse matters beyond easy meaning, the UK publisher of Northern Lights is the same multinational firm as the US publisher of Harry Potter.

It may also be worth acknowledging that a stone which conveys magical immortality makes much more sense--in modern usage--as a "sorcerer's stone" than as a "philosopher's stone." Yes, I support educating fourth-graders in the history of Renaissance scientific nomenclature as much as the next guy, but let's face it--until that happens, there's a case for "sorcerer's stone."

And it definitely seems noteworthy that while J. K. Rowling's Philosopher's Stone title survives in the UK and around the world, for both book and movie, Pullman accepted the US title for his first volume even though that meant he had to find a new series title. Such is the power of US sales.

An item of more interest to story creators:
Pullman really struggled with the first chapter of Northern Lights. On his sixteenth draft (according to him, I think this may have been hyperbole) he was hit with the idea of daemons and it all came together.
What, at least from this hind perspective, seems like a fundamental element of the His Dark Materials universe, and even of some of the books' plotting, wasn't part of Pullman's original planning.

Fuse #8 provides a link to another Golden Compass movie promotion, an advance trailer spotlighting the half-finished special effects.

24 March 2007

Now We're Talking

Bookshelves of Doom’s T-shirt of the week:



Our first glimpse of Rupert Psmith in P. G. Wodehouse’s public-school novel Mike and Psmith:

A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.

“Hello,” he said.

He spoke in a tired voice.

“Hello,” said Mike.

“Take a seat,” said the immaculate one. “If you don’t mind dirtying your bags, that‘s to say. Personally, I don't see any prospect of ever sitting down in this place. It looks to me as if they meant to use these chairs as mustard-and-cress beds. A Nursery Garden in the Home. That sort of idea. My name,” he added pensively, “is Smith. What’s yours?”

“Jackson,” said Mike.

“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”

“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”

“The boy--what will he become? Are you new here, too, then?”

“Yes! Why, are you new?”

“Do I look as if I belonged here? I’m the latest import. Sit down on yonder settee, and I will tell you the painful story of my life. By the way, before I start, there's just one thing. If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe. My father‘s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty. The resolve came to me unexpectedly this morning. I jotted it down on
the back of an envelope.”

23 March 2007

Red-Letter Day

Many happy returns of the day to Kit and Justin!

Poetry Friday: Love Sonnet of an Office Boy

I rarely remember Poetry Friday until it's well, Friday, so I put this one by last week. It is the first of Samuel Ellsworth Kiser’s Love Sonnets of an Office Boy, published in 1902.

Oh, if you only knowed how much I like
To stand here, when the “old man” ain’t around
And watch your soft, white fingers while you pound
Away at them there keys! Each time you strike
It almost seems to me as though you’d found
Some way, while writin’ letters, how to play
Sweet music on that thing, because the sound
Is something I could listen to all day.

You’re twenty-five or six and I’m fourteen,
And you don’t hardly ever notice me--
But when you do, you call me Willie! Gee,
I wisht I’d bundles of the old long green
And could be twenty-eight or nine or so,
And something happened to your other beau.
For the remaining twenty-seven sonnets in the cycle, visit the dedicated page at Sonnet.org.

The office boy seems to have totally vanished from our culture, not just our everyday lives but also from most historical fiction. We have new novels for kids about blacksmith’s apprentices, mill-girls, farmworkers, and other young laborers, but no office assistants, bell hops, or telegraph boys that I can think of.

Yet once that population young urban workers was large, literate, and lucrative enough to inspire products tailored to them. These satirical sonnets were obviously not meant to entertain young teens, but office boys had their own exciting fiction, comic strip, and even board game.

22 March 2007

Longfellow Bicentennial Concert, 25 March

On Sunday afternoon, 25 March, there will be a free concert at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s birth in 1807.

Longfellow was the most popular American writer in the world in the late 1800s. Because so many American schoolkids memorized and recited his poetry, and because he wrote rhyming, metrical, and often narrative verse that went out of fashion in the early 1900s, people started to associate his work with children. There have been some excellent picture-book editions of his poems while some of his longer and more mature work faded.

Long out of favor, Longfellow now seems to be gaining a bit more respect from the academic world, especially because his interests dovetail with two current broad concerns:

  • internationalism: Longfellow was a professor of languages, a translator, a traveler, and a correspondent and champion of poets around the globe.
  • multiculturalism: For his time Longfellow was unusually interested in minority cultures within the US, researching and writing poems about Acadians, Ojibway, Jews, and African-Americans. (Longfellow supported Abolutionism while his father-in-law, who paid for his mansion in Cambridge, was a major textile mill-owner, making family discussion of the issue somewhat awkward.)
This concert, in the same site as a centennial celebration of Longfellow one hundred years ago, will feature:
  • The Boston Landmarks Orchestra, under Charles Ansbacher, performing musical works Longfellow enjoyed and Julian Wachner’s musical setting of “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”
  • Christopher Lydon, host of the WGBH radio discussion show Open Source, as master of ceremonies
  • Matthew Pearl, author of the historical crime novel The Dante Club, featuring Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Lovell, and other Boston literary figures
  • David Connor in the role of Paul Revere
  • Baritone Brett Johnson performing “A Psalm of Life”
  • A local children’s chorus singing a setting of Longfellow’s poem “Snowflakes”
This free family concert starts at 2:00, with the theater open at 1:30. Seating is not reserved.

21 March 2007

Units of Slang in Feed

A coupla years ago I bumped into M. T. Anderson at the Boston Athenaeum and grabbed the chance to compliment him on one little detail in Feed that had struck me as a sign of how skillfully he’d crafted that book’s futuristic language and milieu: the teenage hero and his pals call each other “unit,” but his dad calls him “dude.” Because, of course, Dad wouldn’t be up on the latest.

In his recent interview at Seven Impossible Things, Anderson revealed how that detail was the result of careful calculation and research:

As for creating the future language, I figured that American English has always had a few linguistic positions that are filled with slang: an “informal male friend” slot (dude, man, pal, bud, chum, b’hoy – a 19th C New York one – etc.), an intensifier (cool, excellent, awesome, far-out, neat, swell, capital, etc.), and so on. I just made up new additions to these series.
So now I just feel so swiss, you know?

20 March 2007

Shine on Your Larklight

Philip Reeve wrote Larklight in the voices of a Victorian brother and sister trying hard to be paragons of their culture. Art Mumby tells us: “...I was British, so must be brave.” His older sister Myrtle is more of a snob, saying: “they look terribly common. Why, they are not even human, let alone English.”

One ingredient in the siblings’ conception of being British is being Christian. When Myrtle must make noise to discourage threatening cacti, she “sang ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ and then started over again on ‘To Be a Pilgrim’.” Their home spaceship’s escape pod is equipped with “only a keg of water, a case of fortified biscuits and a copy of the Holy Bible.” Another youngster has Scripture lessons as part of his schooling in London.

Which is not to say that the children rely on Christianity for religious rituals, moral teachings, or spiritual peace. Their adherence seems to have more to do with the simple formula that [I = Christian], [Christian = Good + Right], ergo [I = Good + Right]. We could substitute “British” for “Christian,” and the formula would work just as well for the Mumbys.

Their main theological belief seems to be a monotheistic Creationism. On page 197, Art writes that Jupiter and its moons appear “as if God tried out his craftsmanship here in miniature before he set to work on the rest of our solar realm.” Later in the book Art and his companions learn that the solar system was in fact shaped by a different being, one who’s not a “he” at all. That prompts this dialogue on page 326:

“If it is you Shapers who make everything,” Mr. Munkulus asked, “what place is there for God?”

“Think, dear. . . . Who made the Universe and lit the suns? Who shaped the Shapers? For Shapers are not gods, just servants of that invisible, universal will which set the stars in motion.”
So Creationism can survive; it simply has to be pushed back in time and space.

That still leaves a challenge for Christianity, however, which Larklight doesn’t address one way or the other. And that challenge has been around at least since the Renaissance, when Europeans learned about both:
  • new continents with new peoples
  • the possibility of new planets with new peoples
The priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was the clearest voice of the latter idea, inspired by notions of infinity and the Copernican model of the solar system. Bruno apparently didn’t understand the science, but he understood the philosophical implications of planets revolving around the Sun and the Sun being like other stars. In De l'Infinito Universo et Mondi (Of the Infinite Universe and Worlds), published in 1584, Bruno argued:
There are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours. For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies which may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human Earth.
Such ideas made Bruno unpopular with Europe’s religious hierarchies. He managed to be excommunicated by both Lutherans and Calvinists before the Vatican jailed him for several years and finally burned him at the stake. Although some people assume that Bruno was executed for his astronomical statements, he gave the Inquisition plenty of possible heresies to choose from.

It’s not just that Bruno’s ideas contradict a literal reading of the Bible; most modern faiths have been able to adjust to astronomical facts. Rather, his vision of many worlds with intelligent creatures casts doubt on a fundament of Christianity--that God so loved this world that he incarnated himself as a human on it. What about all those other worlds? What about those other creatures, some “even superior”?

Art and Myrtle Mumby live in the universe that Giordano Bruno imagined, visiting several populated planets and other forms of intelligent life that don’t come from any known planet at all. Larklight portrays the Victorian impetus toward anthropology, but not the Victorian effort at evangelism. Aliens creatures seem to have their own theism--four-armed Mr. Munkulus asks about God--but there’s no discussion about how Art and Myrtle’s Holy Bible applies on the worlds they visit.

Instead, the book ends up reaffirming part of the modern creed of children’s literature: Tolerance is good. (Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that.) “Just because they look a little odd,” Art has told his sister on page 68, “doesn't make them villains.” Then Myrtle falls in love with one of those villains, and Art has to learn his own lesson in toleration:
there are some sights too stomach-churning for even the bravest British boy to contemplate, and the soppy way Jack and my sister ran to cuddle and to kiss each other is one of ’em.
Larklight ends with a hint of marriage years in the future. What sort of marriage ceremony isn’t discussed.

19 March 2007

Señor del Libro! Who are you wearing?

Oz and Ends congratulates Banco del Libro of Venezuela for receiving the 2007 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, given by the Swedish government.

Now I haven’t actually read any of Señor del Libro’s books. (I assume it’s not Señora del Libro--that would be embarrassing.) But as soon as I puzzle out his website, which of course is in Spanish, I plan to order some translations from the library.

Because with past winners like Katherine Paterson, Philip Pullman, and Maurice Sendak, this award puts Banco del Libro in some very high literary company. His speech at the award ceremony in May will no doubt be--

What?

Banco del Libro is what?

Oh, this is embarrassing.

Mysteries of Larklight

I wrote about Philip Reeves’s Larklight once before, but only in connection with its punctuation. (Though set in a version of the Victorian British Empire, the book uses post-WW2 British typesetting conventions, and Bloomsbury didn’t reset the type for the US edition.)

Yet in her reading update Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 writes:

everyone and their brother (most recently J.L. Bell) seems to think that this is the finest thing since sliced bread.
I’m not complaining. I’m just wondering how she knew. She’s an information specialist and all that, but is she reading minds now?

Indeed, I do think Larklight is great. And, given all the modern conveniences advertised in its pages, like Coalbrookdale’s Phlogiston Ranges and the celebrated Martian Moss Cake, sliced bread is a fine analogy.

I enjoyed Reeve’s first book, Mortal Engines, but felt that its characters were types: the naive boy engineer, the bitter girl outlaw, the corrupt society leaders, yadda yadda yadda. Of course the airship pilot would be a glamorous Asian woman with an eyepatch. (At least that’s what I remember from a few years ago. I haven’t read later Hungry City titles, so I don’t know if I’d see the pattern continue.)

The same sense of conventionality pervades Larklight, but here it’s part of the fabric of the book. The narrators are an upper-class Victorian British brother and sister, reflecting the values of their culture even after that culture has expanded into much of the solar system. And their narrations are in the first Person (albeit with different Perspectives, since one sibling writes a memoir and the other keeps a diary). So whenever I think, “Oh, I’ve read something like this in so many old boys’ adventures,” this time I can remind myself, “But this is supposed to read like an old boys’ adventure.”

Or, “Isn’t Captain Jack Havock’s remark on page 246 just like something Captain Jack Sparrow says in Pirates of the Caribbean?” In which case I can tell myself,...“Well, yes, it is. Almost exactly. Just keep reading.”

Of course, there’s a lot in Larklight I’ve never read before. The whole “vacuum of space” thing doesn’t apply in this space opera, for instance. Gravity can be generated with a switch--so much more convenient than finding a huge mass. Although the characters have to contend with less breathable air or weaker gravity than good Englishmen deserve, there are far bigger dangers in this outer space. But I don’t want to spoil any surprises.

As soon as I finished Larklight, I recommended it to my mother. Her last science fiction book was...

Come to think of it, I can’t think of when Mom’s read science fiction. And it didn’t come easy. In our next several conversations, she kept asking me, “And why do you think I should read this book? It has nasty giant insects and rickety spaceships and an overall fey quality.”

But then she got to the moment when one of the children reunites with a parent, and read the rest of the book in a night. She likes stories about parents and children reuniting, you see. She’s the only person I know who thought Home Alone was about Catherine O’Hara reaching Macaulay Culkin rather than about Macaulay Culkin hitting Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the head.

Larklight is one of the rare children’s adventures in which a parent is not only on the scene, but often in charge of where the adventure goes--but yet that’s not a problem. I won’t give away any more, beyond mentioning that Mom made a connection between it and Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury’s picture book Big Momma Makes the World.

TOMORROW: The religious side of Larklight.

18 March 2007

So What's "Temporal Perspective"?

Lee of the Mortal Ghost blog novel sent this comment to one of last week’s posting:

Will you please explain what you mean by 'temporal perspective'?
Which left me confused because I hadn’t used that term recently. But by using the search function, I found that Lee must have followed links back to a posting about narrative voices last year. That mentioned a presentation I gave at last year’s SCBWI New England conference about the parameters of narrative voice in fiction.

One of those parameters, I posit, is Perspective. (I gave all six parameters labels that begin with P, just because.) In my thinking, Perspective refers to the amount of time that’s passed between the events in a story and the storytelling itself. Does the narrator indicate that he or she knows how the story ends? Is the narrator looking back on the events from years later? Does the narrator’s Perspective shift with events, as in an epistolary novel?

In my talk I used the openings of three novels to show different common Perspectives--

Immediate
“Too many!” James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.

“What?” said Will.

“Too many kids in this family, that’s what. Just too many.” James stood fuming on the landing like a small angry locomotive, then stumped across to the window-seat and stared out at the garden.
--Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising (1973)
That appears to be the default Perspective today: get us right into the action, with no hint that the narrator has any knowledge of what’s to come. (Curiously, this opening suggests that James is the character with a problem; Cooper does a deft shift in the next paragraph to put us in Will’s head instead. But that’s a matter of what I call Point of View.)

Recent
I don’t know just why I’m telling you all this. Maybe you’ll think I’m being silly. But I’m not, really, because this is important. You see, it was different! It wasn’t just because it was Jack and I either--it was something more than that.
--Maureen Daly, Seventeenth Summer (1942)
This narrator does know what will happen in her story. But she’s still close enough to those events to believe that they’re really important, and deep. This story about adolescence thus comes from an adolescent Perspective. Other novels about that time in life are written from a more distant, adult Perspective. I think that’s one of the significant differences between true YA fiction and coming-of-age novels for adult readers.

Retrospective
My brother Tom and eldest brother Sweyn arrived home for summer vacation on Sunday, June 5, 1898. I remember the date very well because, just two weeks later, the entire town of Park City was destroyed by the worst fire in the history of Utah.
--John D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain Reforms (1973)
This narrator not only knows what’s upcoming two weeks after the opening moment, but is also distant enough from those events to say, “I remember the date” and “the history of Utah.” This Perspective adds to the sense that the novel might be the true recollection of an aged Utahan. And it hints at entertaining chaos to come.

Telling a story in diary form forces an author to adopt a certain Perspective: each diary entry describes what the character writing believes and feels at that moment, not while the events take place, nor the next day with more knowledge. Often this can interfere with a sense of immediacy and produce less suspense for readers. In Beka Cooper: Terrier, Tamora Pierce wrestles with this problem on page 364 by having her heroine write:
I must write about today, because so much has happened. I think the only way I can write it is to write of my watch, and do so as I lived it, without knowing how it will end.
As I wrote earlier, eschewing the diary format for an immediate Perspective would have let Pierce launch straight into the episode without this apology for doing so.

Lee added in an email:
Have you done any reading in neuroscience or cosmology regarding time? Terribly complex for someone like myself, but fascinating nevertheless. I'm currently working my way through Benjamin Libet's Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness.
No, I haven’t explored that far, and I’m not sure my concept of Perspective is up to that level of sophistication. It’s simply a parameter writers might choose when considering various ways to tell a story. The same events can look quite different from the distance of a few minutes, a day, a year, or many years. One story might work best with one Perspective while another story wouldn’t work that way at all. And breaking out of the Perspectives we’re used to (as in, say, the movies Groundhog Day and Memento) can be very powerful.

17 March 2007

Postdating Awards - Best since 1983?

Rounding out this week of Cybils nominees, I quote an anonymous commenter over at Read Roger who said of such awards:

It can't be easy to choose one book as the best contribution to literature for children in a given year. I am sure it is easier with hindsight. Could we have a prize, maybe called The Postdated Newbery, for the best book published five years earlier?
I suggested something similar in history back when Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America was finally accepted as fraudulent. The book had received the Bancroft Prize, among the top honors for an American historian. Bellesiles had also received the Binkley-Stephenson Award award from the Organization of American Historians for the best historical paper of 1996--a paper that became the seed of his book, and which was also based on spurious evidence.

During the controversy, with gun-rights advocates calling for Bellesiles’s head, many academics defended a deliberate evaluation as necessary for scholarship. It may take months or years to judge a complex historical work, they said: checking citations, considering what other sources might have to say on the topic, testing the analysis, etc. But of course the OAH, the Bancroft committee, the Pulitzer committee, and other organizations give awards for the best of the past year.

Eventually Columbia University rescinded its Bancroft Prize for Arming America. People asked whether the OAH would rescind its award for his paper as well. Executive Director Lee Formwalt explained the answer:
After lengthy discussion, the board decided not to rescind the prize noting that the decisions of the organization to award a prize or publish an article are based on the best information available at that time. The post-publication vetting, through the process of scholarly give and take, ultimately determines the viability of any historical interpretation.
In short, the process of granting formal awards for best history article or book is often too short to really determine the best history article or book.

Novels eligible for the Newbery don’t have citations to consider, but hindsight can still be useful. Among middle-grade novels published in 1964, Harriet the Spy has clearly proved more influential and beloved than Shadow of a Bull or that year’s Honor Book, Across Five Aprils. Of the 1966 honorees, Honor Book The Black Cauldron has kept more fans than medalist I, Juan de Pareja. But then there are years with more than one landmark title on the short list, and time hasn’t produced a clearcut choice among them.

Furthermore, there are advantages to giving book awards fairly soon after publication. Bancroft and Newbery recognition can help a first-time author or first-time nominee become established. With the store shelf life of books shrinking, a bright gold sticker five years later might have to go on remainder copies.

In 1993, the Booker organization in the UK designated a special award for the best Booker Prize-winner of the previous twenty-five years. That went to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, winner in 1981. Though Rushdie no doubt benefited from sympathy in 1993 (he was still in hiding), his novel truly is a magnificent achievement and a landmark in how British fiction expanded in that period.

Would the same process work for Newberys? Of all the Medalists (and Honor Books, if one chooses) from 1983 through this year, which shows the most quality, influence, and staying-power? If you had to choose one title as the Newbery of Newberys in this period, could you do it?

16 March 2007

Cybils Nominee Silver City

Back in the early 1980s, Nickelodeon showed a ten-year-old British science fiction series called The Tomorrow People. Like Marvel’s X-Men, it gratified kids with the notion that they might have more powers than adults--psychic powers, in the TV show. But of course with great powers come great responsibilities, and the Tomorrow People had to fend off various supernatural threats and villains in such adventures as “The Thargon Menace” and “The Revenge of Jedekiah.” Part of the series’ ominous feeling arose from Thames Television’s limited production budget: each show had an odd sense of both claustrophobia and impermanence as the too-close walls threatened to tumble onto the actors.

Silver City, by Cliff McNish, felt to me like part of the strangest Tomorrow People series ever. As the story begins, a huge winged child whose eyes point in different directions is hovering over junky Coldharbour in England. His name, it seems, is Milo. A small group of other children who have developed lesser powers are gathered beneath his wings, wondering what will happen next. And other children from all over the world are trying desperately to reach that area, acting under a compulsion no one understands.

The book shifts among three narrative voices:

  • Thomas, who has a healing power he calls his “beauty.”
  • Helen, able to look into others’ minds.
  • A third-person description of the Roar, an immense, interstellar monster speeding toward Earth, her bowels being devoured by the newborn creatures inside her.
Milo, Helen, Thomas, and three other exceptional children are “the beginning of the defense against the Roar.”

The scenes in Silver City are really scary. Scary not just because of the Roar and what destruction it might bring but because everything is so weird and so personal (kids turning into drilling machines!) that you really don’t know what might happen next.

As a novel Silver City suffers from what I call Empire Strikes Back syndrome. That movie, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Irvin Kershner, is cinematically the best in the Star Wars sequence. But it’s the middle of a trilogy. It doesn’t introduce its central characters or their situation, and it doesn’t resolve any of the stories. In fact, it ends with Han Solo encased in carbonite. Therefore, as admirable as it is, The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t stand on its own.

Similarly, the main characters of Silver City were introduced in The Silver Child. This book doesn’t pause a moment to tell us about their previous lives, desires, and so on. They’re too busy trying to figure out what’s happening to them Right Now. And the book ends with the Bad Things coming closer, the kids rushing to find a Good Thing, and nothing resolved. So Silver City doesn’t stand on its own, either. Like Milo, it hovers, expecting the worst to come soon, in Silver World. I can’t say if the book truly fulfills its promise until I finish all the required reading.

One of the qualities I’ll look for in those other volumes is how well they portray the individual kids with their own personalities, hopes, and choices. In this volume, they act under some compulsion larger than any of us (except possibly not larger than the Roar). Over and over we read that the kids have to do this or that, though they don’t know why. I “allowed myself to be guided into Coldharbour’s northwest region,” Thomas says. Helen’s segment starts, “Someone’s nightmares made me scream.” As a result, McNish paints a vivid, frightening picture of their plight, but not of the kids as individual characters.

(A note about covers: McNish’s Silver Sequence was published by Orion in the UK, and then a couple of years later by Lerner in the US--an unusual lag in a time when almost any British fantasy gets snapped up quickly. Confirming my notion that I’ll never understand British publishers’ ideas of book design, Orion’s Silver Sequence covers are violet, orange, and blue. Lerner shows its roots in school-library publishing by marketing the series under the catchy slogan “Exceptional Reading & Language Arts Titles for Intermediate Grades,” but at least its dust jackets are shiny silver.)

14 March 2007

Cybils Nominee Beka Cooper: Terrier

I’m sure the Chicago Manual of Style has rules on how to render the title of a novel in a series, but I’m not bothering to look them up. What I’m calling Beka Cooper: Terrier, by Tamora Pierce, is the first in a new series named after its heroine, a young woman named Beka Cooper. I suspect each volume will show her at one stage in her law-enforcement career. In this one she’s a trainee (“Puppy”) who proves herself a dogged “Terrier.” Sort of like Cherry Ames, Rookie Cop.

The book takes place in Pierce’s Tortall realm centuries before the action of her first novel, Alanna. The card page (“Other Books By...”) lists three other Tortall quartets and a twosome. So while I hadn’t read any of Pierce’s books before, it wasn’t for lack of effort on her part.

Beka Cooper: Terrier is a police procedural and coming-of-age story set in a fairly “high” fantasy world (no dragons, but mages, knights, etc.). It’s not a mystery, really. Beka and her police colleagues undertake two parallel investigations, but fairly early on they guess the answer to one, and for the other there are no solid red herrings and only a couple of concealed clues. But many police procedurals aren’t built around solving whodunits; the challenge for the cops is amassing evidence before the criminal strikes again, and that’s how this story works, too.

I know this observation might perpetuate gender stereotypes, but female readers, especially those who know Pierce’s other books, seem most excited about figuring out the relationships among the characters: What fella is Beka going to end up with? How is she related to descendants in other volumes? The other male Fantasy/Science Fiction Cybils judge and I focused on the magical milieu, and were left unexcited: it’s a standard sword-and-sorcery world. (But to break that gender stereotype, Pierce herself is reportedly most interested in the magic and weaponry, a little baffled by her fans’ excitement about who likes whom.)

In the book’s prologue we meet Beka as a girl of eight years, bold enough to grab the Lord Provost’s attention by grabbing his horse’s bridle. Impressed, he takes her and her family into his noble household. Yet when we next meet Beka, six years later, she’s cripplingly shy, peering out at the world through her bangs and able to croak out only a few words in front of an audience. The better for reader identification, perhaps?

In fact, Beka has so much going for her, it’s almost complete wish-fulfillment for a teenaged police officer (or teenaged reader). Her cat talks to her. Pigeons talk to her (well, the troubled souls of dead people who ride on the pigeons’ backs do). Dust devils talk to her. As someone said last year about Chasing Vermeer, this is a book in which clues find the kid rather than the kid finding the clues.

The book started slow for me, but eventually I found myself intrigued by Beka’s story and rooting for her success. What stopped me from fully enjoying Beka Cooper: Terrier is how Pierce wrote it in diary form. In fact, I thought it was one of the least convincing, least compelling fictional diaries I’d read in a long time. Shortly after finishing the book, I heard Pierce’s Random House editor speak at the SCBWI conference in New York. She reported that this was the first novel Pierce wrote in the first person, so I suspect she chose the diary form to feel more comfortable in that mode.

Personally, when I read (or write) a book in diary form, I want the document itself to play a role in the story. In this case, for instance, Beka could have looked back in her journal and seen clues that she’d forgotten. A diary might also be commented on, stolen, lost, abandoned and resumed, and so on. I guess this is a variation on the Heisenberg Principle: once a character starts recording her life in a diary, that life shouldn’t be the same anymore.

Why? Because we need an extra dimension of interest for all the limitations that come with a diary. In a realistic diary, especially one written for the diarist alone, the perspective of each entry is how the character feels when he or she write, not earlier in the day. Thus, if I’m writing a diary entry after breaking my leg, I’m going to start with my broken leg and how that’s making me feel right now. I’m not going to start by painting a picture of how my day began hours before. My leg hurts, dammit! So that makes a realistic diary a difficult narrative tool; it offers immediacy, but immediacy to the moment of writing, not the moment of action.

Beka Cooper: Terrier is full of moments narrated in great detail, external and internal, which means that its diary entries are completely unrealistic. On page 80, Beka arrives home physically exhausted--and proceeds to write more than 52 pages! And that's on top of 12 pages written at some point that morning--exactly when she finds the time is unclear.

There are a few writerly tricks to remind us we’re supposed to be reading a document, like a smear of ink on one page. But those tricks don’t really work. One night Beka comes home a little tipsy (page 350), so her diary includes typos: “teh Fog Lanterun.” We make errors like that when we type drunk, not when we write with a quill pen drunk. The prologue includes a diary entry from a semi-literate relative. But semi-literate people don’t keep detailed diaries. Most important, those types of narrative intrusions (what I called a “Paper Trail” in a presentation last spring) distract from the story rather than adding to it.

Three hundred years ago, as the novel was just being established in English literature, readers may have expected the frame of a memoir, biography, series of letters, or diary to explain why someone is telling us all this. But we don’t need those crutches anymore. We’re happy to follow a character describing his or her story in detail for no explicit reason at all--as long as that story is exciting. And Pierce’s story is exciting enough. It would have been more graceful without the unnecessary diary format, and I hope Pierce has the confidence to ditch that element for her next Beka Cooper volume. Her first-person voice works just fine.

The Cover Is Blown

At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Jules & Eisha feature a long, detailed, and characteristically witty interview with M. T. Anderson. Along the way, names are dropped.

13 March 2007

Cybils Nominee Pucker

Pucker, by Melanie Gideon, has a provocative premise. In fact, it has two or three provocative premises.

Young Thomas Quicksilver lives in a society where everyone starts the day by hearing about his or her future from official Seers. This society, Isaura, has blocked itself off from other nations (and most modern technologies) to protect its Seers from war and exploitation.

Then Thomas and his family suffer a calamity: his father dies, his mother loses the Seerskin that lets her foretell the future, and his face is badly burned in a fire. His mother flees with him to the great outside world, where she unexpectedly regains her gift for telling fortunes, and thus finds a livelihood.

Actually, all that is related in flashback, from the perspective of the adolescent Thomas. Who is, you won’t be surprised to learn, grumpy. Grumpy because his scarred face freaks out his classmates, especially girls. Grumpy because his mother has become emotionally disabled by her psychic abilities. And probably grumpy because he’s an adolescent, but in his case his grumpiness seems merited.

But Thomas’s mother has a plan. Isaura quietly invites people from our world to come work in their society, performing slave labor in exchange for being cured of hard physical disabilities. Because of his scars, Thomas can convincingly enter that program and return to Isaura. There he’ll be able to track down his mother’s Seerskin and bring it back to America, restoring her health.

But once Thomas has reached Isaura and had his face restored, he discovers that he’s good-looking. Devastatingly handsome, in fact. Teenaged girls line up to make out with him--all except one, who’s naturally the girl he’s most attracted to. Meanwhile, his mother is waiting back home.

Pucker thus presents teens with a lot of interesting, perhaps unanswerable questions of the sort that fantasy literature alone can pose:

  • Is it good to know your immediate future down to the last detail?
  • How far can a society go to keep its most talented members from leaving?
  • Does Isaura offer a fair bargain to its menials?
  • What disability or fatal disease, if any, would make you give up your life to toil as a slave?
  • How would your thinking change if you, like Thomas, were incredibly sexy in Isaura and physically repulsive in America?
  • Does Thomas’s obligation to his mother outweigh his own needs and desires?
  • Do the wiseass remarks that protect Thomas when he’s scarred become simply rude when he’s not?
I was excited by the range of questions Pucker brought up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think the novel followed through on those premises, or promises. In Part III, the book suddenly seems to hurry up, and fall apart. Some important events are described in hasty retrospect while other threads simply dissolve. Revelations fall thick and fast (none to be revealed here); some of that information should be devastating, but the characters barely react to what they’ve just learned. In the end, Thomas doesn’t seem crucial to the resolution of his own problems; the plot turns on the actions of other characters.

I was pleased to have read Pucker, and will keep my eye open for Melanie Gideon’s other books, but I was disappointed in how this one turned out. Perhaps there were too many balls in the air for any juggler.

12 March 2007

Selig Wizard of Oz and More

Displaying her prowess as a multimedia resource expert, Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 devoted her latest “Video Sunday” roundup to cinematic versions of The Wizard of Oz glimpsable on YouTube.

They include the 1910 Selig short feature, the earliest surviving film of L. Frank Baum’s book. When I was growing up, this was thought to be (a) a re-edit of an earlier movie, made for Baum himself as part of an extravagant multimedia lecture tour that drove him into bankruptcy; and (b) totally lost.

Now it appears that Baum assigned the right to film his book to the Selig Company as part of his bankruptcy settlement, and the company shot their own version of the story. As I recall, Oz expert Michael Patrick Hearn discovered it in a Kodak archive, or some such.

Cybils Nominee The Last Dragon

Among the novels nominated for the Cybils Award in Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Last Dragon produced the widest scope of opinions. Some people liked it a lot. Some people disliked it even more. I was in the second group.

Silvana de Mari originally called her novel L’Ultimo Elfo, Italian for The Last Elf, and that’s the title of the British edition. De Mari seems to like ultimates: her other books include L’ultima stella a destra della luna and L’ultimo orco.

Apparently Miramax/Hyperion thought a dragon would sell better. But there’s no question that the last elf, a little creature nicknamed Yorsh, dominates the story. He’s also de Mari’s most innovative creation. In folklore we have the tradition of elf as small woodland sprite, often mischievous. And in fantasy literature since Tolkein we have the tradition of elf as tall woodland warrior, usually solemn.

The Last Dragon offers a third view: elf as special-needs child. Yorsh’s terrors, his naiveté, his natural powers, and his self-endangering behavior inspire a woman (usually called “the woman”) and a man (“the hunter”) to band together to protect him, and eventually the couple starts a true family. There are some funny moments as these characters adjust to each other. And, to my taste, there are many more unfunny moments when the same jokes are pounded over and over into the ground.

In fact, a lot of the narrative seems repetitive and mannered to me. Chapters 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 15, 19, 20, and 36 start with day breaking and/or characters waking up. Six of those nine chapters even have “dawn” or “daybreak” in their opening sentences. There’s an ongoing motif in the early chapters of Yorsh trying to find a name for a dog; the weak payoff is that he chooses “Fido.” When the elf reads ancient runes (after all, every high fantasy needs ancient runes), he identifies them as from the First, Second, and Third Runic Dynasty.

Some of those runes spell out a prophecy (after all, every high fantasy needs a prophecy): “When the last dragon and the last elf break the circle, the past and the future will meet...” I’d have thought that the moment when past and present meet is called “the present,” but in this story that’s when the land will be freed from a climatic catastrophe. Which brings me to the book’s plot.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster defines a plot (as distinct from what he calls “story”) to be defined by causal relationships between events: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Adding a prophecy to a fantasy story makes those connections even more important: they’ve been preordained, after all. A prophecy makes a deal with the characters, and with the readers: if the characters can fulfill this condition, the result follows.

Part I of The Last Dragon repudiates this. Without any verbal hints or other preparation, de Mari has Yorsh explain that the “When” in that prophecy doesn’t imply causality, simply coincidence. The climate improved because of some event in the solar system, which happened to occur at the same time the little elf met the cranky old dragon. And just then, not by coincidence, I lost interest in de Mari’s story, which shifts to another adventure years later. Fool me once...

The translation of The Last Dragon/Elf into English by Shaun Whiteside won a Batchelder Honor from the American Library Association. So I assume that the English text is an accurate translation of the Italian story, quirks and all.

11 March 2007

Cybils Sales Effect

Awards matter most when someone besides the awarders and the awardees care--which usually means there’s money at stake. Alfred Nobel and Joseph Pulitzer knew that when they put some of their fortunes into prizes. So did the founders of the MacArthur Foundation: before 1981 no one knew what the organization was. Now “MacArthur genius” can serve as a synonym for “rocket scientist.”

Among American book prizes, the Newbery and Caldecott Medals are prominent not because they offer a lot of prize money but because they always increase a book’s sales significantly. The Pulitzer and Oprah’s Book Club are basically the only other American book awards that have the same consistent and lasting effect.

Now the organizers of the Cybils Awards have documented a pattern of four award-winning books, including our Fantasy/Science Fiction pick Ptolemy’s Gate, suddenly climbing up Amazon’s sales rankings as word of the Cybils spread. Will that effect last for future years? Will it catch publishing marketers’ eyes so that they start to claim and proclaim their “Cybils-winning” titles?

While waiting breathlessly for the answer, this week I’ll post remarks on the rest of the Fantasy/Science Fiction nominees for 2006.

10 March 2007

Parodying the Encyclopedia

Last month I had occasion to reread a couple of Encyclopedia Brown books, and realized that I was borrowing Donald J. Sobol’s vision of kid society for one of my current writing projects.

Each of the kids in Sobol’s books has his or (less often) her own idiosyncratic obsession: the boy who collects teeth, the kindergartner who publishes a newspaper even though he can’t read or write, the gallant ladies’ man, the rabid animal lover, the skinflint, and so on.

Of course, Encyclopedia is the same, a kid with a photographic memory sitting in his garage waiting for clients to come pay him a quarter. (He actually has some anxious moments in the first book, wondering if anyone will show up and validate him.)

In a way, Bugs Meany is the most rounded kid in Idaville: at least he’s willing to try a new scheme every couple of stories.

Do American kids today recognize such a world, where kids make their own fun instead of rushing from one scheduled activity to another? Or was Encyclopedia Brown< always secretly a parody of childhood?

In any event, it’s no surprise that such a delightfully mannered series has attracted more than its share of parodies. A selection for your entertainment:

09 March 2007

Longfellow and an Act of Will

In his column dated 12 March, Newsweek fixture George S. Will states:

One hundred years ago, Feb. 27 was enlivened by events around the nation commemorating what had happened 100 years before that, in 1807. But last week's bicentennial of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow passed largely unnoted, which is noteworthy. . . .

The melancholy fact that the 200th birthday of the poet who toiled to create the nation's memory passed largely unremarked is redundant evidence of how susceptible this forward-leaning democracy is to historical amnesia.
Daring to intrude on Will’s studied melancholy, I report that Longfellow’s bicentennial was noted by several individual bloggers in different ways.

Furthermore, considering Will’s own readership is so much larger than any one blog, he bears some responsibility for a lack of note last month. Will could have mentioned Longfellow’s 27 February birthdate in his column dated 26 February, which actually quotes the poet. He could have published his appreciation of Longfellow a week or two before the poet’s birthday as a way of prodding his readers and others in the news media, instead of waiting a week or two after.

What about those approaches would have been deficient? Well, they’d have left Will powerless to lament. Complaining about contemporary culture retrospectively is apparently more rewarding to him than looking forward, even a week or two. Will is, after all, a traditionalist conservative, the sort who’s always looking for handbaskets on their way somewhere.

“Not long ago there still were celebrity poets,” Will writes. Of course, there still are: they just aren’t the type of people or writers that Will admires, such as Maya Angelou and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, so he pretends they don’t exist. Just as he pretends that he didn’t contribute to Longfellow’s birthday being, in his eyes, “largely unremarked.”

07 March 2007

Fantasy Matters Conference, Minnesota, Nov 2007

With the wind chill hovering about zero in the mornings here, this is not the best time to get a New Englander excited about visiting Minnesota, even for a fantasy conference. Savannah, San Antonio, Honolulu--that would be a fantasy! But here’s the call for papers for the Fantasy Matters conference, scheduled for 16-18 November 2007 at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities.

Fantasy literature is everywhere these days. Whether it’s Eragon at the box office or the latest Harry Potter at the bookstore, fantasy literature seems to have captured the public’s imagination and run away with it. In spite of, or perhaps because of this popularity, however, fantasy literature still isn’t taken as seriously as other, more “canonical” literature.

This conference takes the position that fantasy literature does matter, and plays an important role not only in popular culture, but also in the realm of literature itself. Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman series of graphic novels, and Jack Zipes, noted scholar of fairy tales and folklore, will be the keynote speakers at the conference.

All papers related to fantasy literature are welcome, but participants are encouraged to consider the question of the importance of fantasy literature when forming their submissions. We also welcome authors to participate in this discussion, either by serving on panels or by sharing their own creative works.

Potential panel discussions include:
  • The relationship between fantasy literature and "canonical" literature
  • The role of fantasy literature in childhood
  • Narrative strategies in fantasy literature
  • Issues of race, gender, and sexuality in fantasy literature
  • The use of source material in fantasy literature
  • The relationship between fantasy literature and its adaptation(s) in film
Scholars of fantasy literature at any level (fan, undergraduate, graduate, or professional) are invited to submit abstract proposals of 250 words. Scholars should plan for a 15-minute presentation with 5 minutes for questions; they may also submit entire panels for consideration, planning for three 15-minute papers per panel.

Authors of fantasy literature who would like to present their work are encouraged to submit a 5-page sample of the piece they intend to read. Authors should plan for a 30-minute reading.
The submission deadline is 31 May 2007. For further information, including the address for submissions and queries, visit the Fantasy Matters conference website.

05 March 2007

Translating the Worldwide Phenomenon

In January, the Guardian ran a story on the special challenges of translating the Harry Potter books. It asks:

When Uncle Vernon hums "Tiptoe Through the Tulips", do you let him keep his Anglophone song and just translate the title? Harry's Spanish uncle hums "De puntillas entre los tulipanes". Or do you find a local equivalent, like Germany's Onkel Vernon, who goes for the rather more German folk hum, "Bi-Ba-Butzemann"?

Spanish readers will find most names and invented words unchanged ("¿Hagrid, qué es el quidditch?"), or translated literally. So the Spanish is faithful in one obvious sense - but while the names may be unchanged, does the name Quirrell really sound as nervous, stammery, querulous in Spanish? Does Hufflepuff sound as ineffectual, dumb and huggable as it does to English ears?
And then there are the clues J. K. Rowling embeds in her English words, such as:
Tom Marvolo Riddle may be an anagram of "I am Lord Voldemort"; but it's not an anagram of "Je suis Voldemort", so in France he's Tom Elvis Jedusor.
No wonder he wants to be king.

Not discussed in this European article is how the wizards' spells are Latin. How do they get translated for cultures that don't descend from the Romans the way that Europe's largely do? And within Harry Potter's reality, do wizards in China or Kenya or Kuwait use the same spells that he does? [Gili, any answers?]

04 March 2007

Finding Where Foundling Really Starts and Ends

Foundling, the first book in D. M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series, tracks young Rossamünd as he leaves the orphanage for his first job. This being Fantasyland, he gets lured and knocked off course, enticed into dangerous deeds, presented with rival mentors, and so on. And a good thing, too, since ordinary job orientations aren’t that exciting. Foundling is thus a novel about Rossamünd trying to figure out his place in the world.

A few years ago, I heard Newbery-winning Richard Peck intone (he didn’t seem to simply say anything) at an SCBWI conference that after completing a novel he always goes back to rewrite the first chapter. Later he told Publishers Weekly the same:

I'll take this first chapter, and without rereading it, I'll throw it away and write the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
I’m not sure a total rewrite is necessary, but the first chapter of a novel definitely needs to set out the threads and themes of the story that follows. It should also be where life changes for the protagonist, and thus where the story really begins.

So what’s the first chapter of Foundling? “It Began with a Fight” shows Rossamünd and another boy at the orphanage sparring with sticks. Is that the last chapter in disguise? Does it lead into the rest of the book? In retrospect, can we glimpse the threads of the wafting through the air back there? I don’t think so.

Rossamünd never has to call on his stick-fighting capability during his journey, nor other combat skills. His nasty rival never reappears in the book (though I’m sure he’ll resurface later in the series). There’s no causal link between this scene and the plot that follows; despite the chapter’s title, it’s not where “It Began” at all. And this scene has no tie to the novel’s main theme of defining one’s place in the wide world.

Furthermore, by focusing so many pages on the fight scene, Cornish seems to have left himself less space to start his story. When Rossamünd does get his job offer, in chapter 3, it’s followed by several very hurried paragraphs describing action instead of dramatizing it (no dialogue at all on on pages 40-41). Yet those actions turn out to be most important for Rossamünd’s future, more than the fight.

I think the same elements could have been combined this way for a more successful launch:
1) Rossamünd learns that he’s been selected for a new job.
2) His jealous rival pummels him unfairly in the sparring match.
3) Rossamünd’s friends on the orphanage staff (introduced largely in chapter 2) cluster round to ensure that he can take the job.
4) He departs, still a little dazed, which leads into his first adventure.
A similar problem of story structure appears at the end, though of course I don’t want to give everything away. In vague terms, Rossamünd has ended up working for a monster fighter named Europe. (A lot of Cornish’s characters share names with things or places in our world.) On page 284 Rossamünd does something that annoys Europe--he knows it would annoy her, perhaps anger her dreadfully, yet he feels he has to do it. This is thus an important step in defining himself. But now he has to accept the consequences.

And what are those consequences? On page 290 Cornish shows us that Europe still wants Rossamünd to be her helper. Score one for standing up for your values! Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t end for 22 more pages, which show Rossamünd traveling to his original job assignment. That final chapter thus becomes an anticlimax, hanging around like a last bit of pie when you’re already reasonably full and the pie wasn’t stellar to begin with.

Again, with a little tweaking Cornish could have kept up the suspense he’d created to the end. Rossamünd could have left for his assignment still worrying about how Europe felt about him, fearing that he’d cut himself off from her respect forever. At the end of his journey, he receives a note from her [page 296]. Move that to the end of the novel, make that the first way she tells him that she still respects him, and the anticlimax would disappear. Then the whole novel, from very start to very end, would be about Rossamünd finding his place in the Half-Continent world.

03 March 2007

The Primary Objective in Monster Blood Tattoo

At Inside a Dog, the current writer in residence is D. M. Cornish, author of the nascent Monster Blood Tattoo series. (He also maintains this blog.) Cornish writes of the value of good editing:

I have to say that editors are a boon, no matter how hard their input can be to hear at first. Of course, I knew this already. The process of Book 1 was well worth the reworking and the bruised ego; and though there is a whole lot to be done on Book 2 this too will be worth it... though ask me again how I’m feeling in a couple of weeks.
At the small risk of disrupting that important work with antipodean commentary, I found the first book in the series, Foundling, to be well written on the level of sentences, dialogue, and paragraphs. Even more impressive is how Cornish has imagined his “Half-Continent” world of monsters and monster-slayers from top to bottom. Indeed, as he’s described in interviews, “My primary objective has been to create place as thoroughly as possible and know it well before venturing out into stories.” Only after an editor saw his voluminous notebooks and insisted he write a book did Cornish apparently focus on creating a narrative to take place on that landscape.

Alas, I think Foundling’s storytelling is still full of bumps and jars, of the sort that good editing (external and internal) could smooth down. The prose is fine, the world lively--but the story structure often ungainly. It’s largely a matter of what to emphasize when, what to leave out till later, how to make everything tie together. When an author’s “primary objective” is creating a place, that naturally makes him reluctant to subordinate setting details to story--but that’s what a novel needs.

As I noted back in January, Foundling has more maps and appendices than most historians writing about real countries can hope for: over 120 pages, over a quarter of the book. That volume of information helps create verisimilitude, and would certainly have appealed to the fanboy I was in my early teens. But some of those back pages state information not relevant to this story or repeat facts from the story itself (occasionally giving away plot points). In the end it’s more data than is good for the narrative.

And those appendices may not be necessary. The book’s young hero, Rossamünd, has a sort of World Almanac that he consults during his adventures. So we could see many of the crucial maps, pictures, definitions, etc. at the same time Rossamünd reviews them. Or short extracts from the reference book could appear between chapters. Connecting the background information directly to the story would have forced Cornish to focus on what readers really need.

When such background info does appear in the text, it sometimes comes with the unwelcome urgency of a voice in your ear while you're trying to watch a movie. To take one small example from Foundling, chapter 10 brings on a healer this way:
Closely behind her shuffled a stranger: a short, meek-looking young woman--a girl really, younger than Verline--wearing a variation of clothing Rossamünd had seen many times before. A skold!
Then come two long, detailed paragraphs about the healer, filling more than a page and a half. That description interrupts a dramatic confrontation and shoves two domineering characters into the background. A silent, “meek-looking,” and “very nervous” newcomer shouldn’t dominate the scene like that.

I think the long passage about the skold would have worked better three pages later, after the start of the next chapter. At that point the loud characters have played out their conflict and separated. Rossamünd gives his eager attention to the healer. That would be the best time for Cornish to draw our attention to her as well--for the sake of the story.

TOMORROW: The same pattern writ large.

Disclosure: I read Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling after receiving a free review copy from its US editor.

02 March 2007

My New Word of the Week: Baramin

Thanks to Jon Swift’s delightful analysis of Conservapedia, I learned a new word tonight: baramin.

It turns out that some people consider the word species to be too “secular.” So as an alternative an author came up with baramin, and another resurrected it five decades later in 1990. I would have thought that conservatives would prefer a term that had been around for more than half a millennium to a neologism, but there you go.

Conservapedia defines a baramin as “a lineage of earthly life that that [sic] was originally created by God during the Creation Week.” In that sentence both “life” and “Creation Week” are marked for cross-references, but no one at Conservapedia has bothered to define those yet. I guess they’re not as important as baramins.

As for how to use baramin in a sentence, or at least to form long, complex words from it so as to sound more scholastic, here is part of the Conservapedia entry on kangaroo:

Like all modern animals, modern kangaroos originated in the Middle East and are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood. It has not yet been determined whether kangaroos form a holobarmin with the wallaby, tree-kangaroo, wallaroo, pademelon and quokka, or if all these species [whoops--secularism!] are in fact apobaraminic or polybaraminic.

After the Flood, kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia. There is debate whether this migration happened over land -- as Australia was still for a time connected to the Middle East before the supercontinent of Pangea broke apart -- or if they rafted on mats of vegetation torn up by the receding flood waters.
Conservatism marches on into the past.