Sunday, March 30, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Real and Fictional Alaskas

Today's garage sale is easy, since this is the anniversary of the purchase of Alaska - $7.2 million dollars given for an enormous chunk of land the purchasing entity didn't know how to use or control, from a government entity that didn't use or control it.

Russians did use Alaska, of course, but the land area was largely irrelevant to them. Private citizens profited from the cold, rich waters around Alaska. But the people who lived there, and whose ancestors had lived there for longer than any American at that time guessed, are the only ones who could be said to own any of it.

It would take someone better acquainted with them than me to sort out the reality of the places we lump together and call Alaska, dividing it off from other circumpolar places of which, in a very real sense, it is a part. Just as, when we look at the American Southwest, it only takes a slight adjustment of the eye to see that South Texas and Northern Mexico have a unity not acknowledged by political geography, we can look down at the top of the globe and see that Alaska, much of Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and much of Russia make a coherent whole, and can also be divided into a number of distinct but related cultural areas, independent of the influential fictions of States and Nations. The $7.2 million dollars was an exchange at the fictional level (money being exactly as fictional as nations, and providing a fair barometer of how well the fiction of an individual nation is faring at any given point in time), so it's not that surprising that it seemed a worthwhile deal in the abstract, map-driven plane of deal-making, as opposed to the practical day-to-day reality that named the place "Seward's Folly."

A century and a half later, it's easy (given appropriate research) to look back and spin alternate twentieth-century histories out of notions like "what if Russia still controlled Alaska in 1963?" or "What if Canada had bought it instead?"

Alternatively - and fruitfully, particularly, for Alaskan natives - far too few of the stories of the intersection between the real "Alaska" and the overlay of its imperialist fiction counterpart have been told, and even fewer have attracted as much notice as they deserve. A book like My Name is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson, was a finalist for the National Book Award, yet I bet you've never heard of it. Which of course discourages people from writing such books, which is a damn shame. Especially for the non-white natives of Alaska who are discouraged from reading when they don't find themselves reflected in the books they can find, but that's another rant.

And finally, and what interests me particularly as someone who loves books that grow out of research and imaginative engagement with facts, it seems to me that the circumpolar regions provide a place for a creative exploration of the intersection between daily reality and overlying fictions. What if the people who really own a place, the folks who live there and understand its hardships and resources, are able to find a way to retain control of it? What if, in 1963, neither Russia, nor the US, nor any other overwhelming fiction of statehood has any recognized claim to that area, but the people who live there do?

Or what if there's a Circumpolar Nation, made up of all those cultures bonding together at the abstract government level?

This is one for people who live in Alaska to sort out.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Threat Assessment

Some days you're wiped for no particular reason and just not feeling it. And that's all right - nobody can be "on" 24/7, 52/365.

But the whole point of this blog is that ideas are easy. And sometimes, you do in fact have to perform, whether you're "on" or not. So let's see how I do starting from a place of "meh, I'm crashing."

I bet there's something in Fortean Times. But that's a bit of a crutch, isn't it? Not that there's anything wrong with a crutch, used properly - great things, crutches, when your legs aren't reliable. But if used in the wrong way, you make your problem worse instead of better; curl your whole body around the problem point until your whole body is a problem, instead of reducing the weakness to its smallest possible area and strengthening the adjacent muscles. It's possible I go to FT sometimes when I could do better by going to my own life.

Okay, what's the last serious conversation I had?

That would be the one about dealing with threats, last night. Specifically, girls dealing with threats from other girls.

Because girls are freaking scary. We don't have rules about aggression (except for the one that boys and authority figures must be kept in the dark about our capacity for it), and when your average woman gets into an altercation she is no more to be restrained by considerations about fighting "fair" than a cat is. Because fighting "fair" means "fighting in a way designed to sort out who is physically superior" and the heck with that. By the time a girl's in a physical altercation, she's past all considerations of "fair."

The conversation featured two true personal stories of physical threat. My friend T's story involved the time a bunch of girls who did not live near her got off at her bus stop, followed her, and surrounded her. So T wrapped her book bag (she'd just come from the library) around her arm, wound up, smashed the ringleader's face hard enough to take her down, and went on her way.

My story involved the repercussions of the only time I was ever not the worst performer in a team game. In women's basketball, if you're guarding, you don't have to catch, dribble, shoot, or even touch a ball; you just have to keep between one person and the ball, within a narrowly defined space. All guarding requires is mental focus, patience, and stamina - all of which I had (unlike the hand-eye coordination, muscular strength, etc. etc. ad nauseum amen which I did not have). Which meant that even good players would find themselves failing when pitted against the acknowledged Worst in Class . And somehow (I'll never know whether this was an aggressive move on the part of the team captain I wound up with, because I wasn't paying attention enough - I was just trying to survive to the end of the period and go do something real) I wound up on the same girl several days in a row. A girl who, if I recall correctly, didn't have much going for her except that she was good at team sports, an extremely high-status occupation in our shared regional culture. So one day after a game that I suppose must have been particularly frustrating for her, she walked up to me, took hold of my upper arm, put her face up next to mine, and informed me that she was going to beat me up.

I blinked at her and responded: "Go ahead. I can't stop you." And she walked away and never threatened me again, instead devising a strategy that worked against me - namely, standing still on the court till I got bored, lost focus, and she could get around me when I looked inward for something interesting to pay attention to.

(Men I tell this story to are always incredulous. Sometimes they tell me that this could not possibly work. And of course it wouldn't work in an exactly similar situation with guys - because the stakes would have been different.)

At first glance, our responses to these situations seem to be impossible to reconcile, but T and I agree that they were alike in that we both responded without conscious thought. T did not think about using her bookbag as a weapon - she just did it. I did not think about surrendering - I just did it. If we'd had to consciously think about how to respond we probably would have been paralyzed, but we went with our guts and our guts had, in each case, recognized the underlying motivations of the threats and enabled us to respond appropriately.

T, as a loner, had been identified by a pack as a weak animal, game for hunting. Packs seek victims - taking them down bonds the members together and reinforces internal and external hierarchies. She demonstrated that she was not victim material and could take down the alpha, and they backed off to look for easier prey. I, on the other hand, was the acknowledged omega in a shared, but temporary, hierarchy; I was nobody in gym class, beneath contempt - and I was fine with that, for a certain value of fine, because gym class was irrelevant to my real life. So it must have been beyond humiliating for this girl to find me suddenly stealing status from her - as well as interfering with her enjoyment of the game, which any gamer knows derives from an equal contest within a framework of equitable rules. Being paired with an inferior who nevertheless beats you - no wonder she wanted to hit me! By acknowledging my physical inferiority I handed her status back to, reminded her that I was by no means a worthy opponent, and also possibly gave her space in which to realize that the consequences of beating up a passive little white girl (yes, this was a cross-racial incident)who couldn't hit back effectively, and couldn't be forced to try, were likely to outweigh the satisfaction of seeing me bleed.

T and I were both lucky in that we were capable of the correct responses, too. It would be problematic in the extreme for me to physically take down anybody even with a full bookbag; while T, though loner enough to be identified by a pack as a potential victim, did have a stake in her school's hierarchy system, which I never had.

And here is where we get down to the story idea. Both of these stories are incomplete. They belong in a larger narrative dealing with aggression, social hierarchies, status, and physical threat.

So now we start asking, What if?

What if I'm in T's place, or she's in mine? What do our guts tell us, then?

What if T and I are the same person, faced with both these threats, and others - negotiating a high-threat environment that presents a new challenge nearly every day? And by high-threat environment, I don't mean a "bad neighborhood;" I mean the real, soul-crushing threats that nice neighborhoods pose to nice girls. The threats that authorities consistently fail to recognize as serious. Given that each threat poses a different problem that requires a different solution, how does she get through each school day, and how does this affect her strategy in the wider world?

What if the racial element is highlighted - and reversed? What if the physically incompetent girl is also a member of a lower-caste race? Physical helplessness is a white female prerogative - a low status one, but a real one. That's an issue worth exploring.

What if girls did have fair fight rules? That implies an entirely different surrounding society.

What if boys don't? Ditto.

What if a girl tries to implement a male strategy or a boy tries to implement a female one?

What if the protagonist is intersex or transgender? How does that change available strategies? Does it change the nature of the threats? (I posit that it would; and that a bullying story centered on such a character would pack quite a wallop and highlight a lot of gendered issues that tend to get overlooked.)

What if?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

When you can't decide...

Risk it.

Sometimes, you're looking at guidelines and you think, Maybe this story I wrote awhile back would do for them. Or, maybe it wouldn't.

So, your reread the story. And it's better than you remembered; but you're still not sure, even after running a polishing cloth over it again while thinking about those guidelines. Okay, it's fantasy but it's subtle; okay, it's a YA but it's a youngish (or oldish) YA; okay, it's women's fiction but...

So you reread the guidelines, and this part over here makes you excited and that part over there is discouraging, and you've heard a rumor about this editor, but nothing in the guidelines or your knowledge base about the market absolutely precludes the story you have in hand.

Then you send it. Because you can't sell it if you don't send it. And if they don't like it, what's one more rejection, really? Especially when this is one time when you know "wasn't a good match" probably is the real reason for the rejection, so you won't go examining the rejection with a magnifying glass, inventing implications about how your work sucks and you should go dig ditches. (And you need to get over doing that, by the way. There's a thousand and five reasons to reject a manuscript, only one of which is "it stinks.") But if it does sell - well, that's a triumph as well as money, isn't it? The cost/benefit analysis works here.

I'm assuming, of course, that the story is good; that you have read the guidelines more than once; and that you are facing a true point of ambiguity, not a limitation that makes no sense to you. If you think your time travel story is fantasy because time travel is not scientifically plausible, but the editor thinks it's science fiction because the time travel goes to the future, that's a legitimate difference of opinion and you learned something about that editor for the cost of the time it took to submit. If you think your 3,500 word story is perfect for a project with a 3,000 word limit, and send it without cutting 500 words, that's a waste of your time and hope, because the person sorting through the slushpile (or, in this day and age, the slush e-mail address) looking for the inappropriate submissions that don't have to be read because they didn't follow the guidelines won't care what genre it is when she sees the word count.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Modern Megafauna

Today is Game with People Day, and today we play Cavemaster. I am about equal parts excited and apprehensive; as should be any person who tries to play a Pleistocene game with me.

People exist in this world who are doing practical work to restore the lost world of the Pleistocene. I've probably mentioned this here before, because reintroduction of megafauna and the return of mammoths, giant sloths, short-faced bears, et al., is naturally an attractive notion to me. I don't necessarily think such things are doable, or wise; but a project like the Pleistocene Park, dealing with the restoration of an ecosystem with the assistance of existing, rather than extinct, species has the potential to be fruitful in a lot of ways, and I'm all for it.

But the Idea Garage Sale isn't about practical plans; it's about spinning stories. And thinking about the Pleistocene, and Pleistocene Park, and megafauna, and so on, pulls me in a number of directions.

The first, of course, is backwards. The surface of possible stories set in the Pleistocene has barely been scratched, and I'm puzzled at myself that I haven't started my second one yet.

The second is forwards. Suppose megafauna and their ecosystems can be restored; and suppose that circumstances of human society allow them to be restored (which I am far from sure is the case) - how extensive can the restoration be? Are we talking one megapark in Siberia, tourism to which causes an unexpected economic boom? A few small patchy islands of pseudo-ecology run as theme parks in the most affluent nations? Modern technological society collapsing in on itself and providing room for the megafauna to reassert themselves from the small, tentative starts a few hyperspecialized scientists gave them?

And then there's sideways - alternate universes in which the end-of-Pleistocene megafaunal extinction did not occur. Aurochs still roam Europe; different species of probiscidea grace each continent, along with hundreds of dependent species (consider the insect life that mammoth dung could harbor!) and predators. Since in historical times industrialized hunting, farming, transportation, and harvesting of raw materials have been the chief culprits in major reductions in biodiversity, the implications for human history are numerous even if we assume that the end-of-Pleistocene extinctions weren't humanity's fault.

Jefferson had a reasonable expectation that the Lewis and Clark expedition might have encountered mammoths. What if they had?

What if the "Save the Woolly Mammoth" shirt I'm wearing now were a legitimate political slogan shirt rather than a joke?

How is African slavery different, if the economy enslaving the Africans is based on growing cotton in mastodon country? Could you grow cotton at an industrial scale in mastodon country?

How would the Spanish Civil War have been different if the Running of Bulls in Pamplona is a running of aurochs, with all the differences in circumstance that entails?

How is the history of the Iroquois Nation different on a continent that never had to do without horses, in which the top predator other than man is the short-faced bear? Or perhaps the American lion?

How does the timber industry accommodate the reality of the giant beaver?
I don't know about you, but my world-building disease is paralyzed by the sheer richness of the possibilities.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not How I Roll, But...

I've always, always, always had to do things chronologically in the first draft, no bouncing around.

But this time, apparently, I have to bounce around. In time, in character, in emphasis. In everything. Between stuff I might theoretically get paid for and stuff no one will ever see but me (unless I become the subject of graduate work which isn't very likely and no one expects it) and stuff that may or may not ever even be relevant. It's not how I work.

But it is this time. And something vaguely story-shaped emerges from the mess.

And isn't some of this a substitute for piles of research, in a way? Since I can't research this one? Aren't I doing research in my own head?

We'll see, I reckon. In any case I don't seem capable of doing anything else, so - ride it out.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

It's been awhile since I engaged with the MG side of my brain, which is where I always used to live, so let's step back there a minute.

The principle of ditching the parents to give kids more agency in stories is time-honored, and a good one. How you go about ditching the parents is a creative decision with a large impact on the presentation of the core story. Parents who are absent due to family crisis demand a different sort of story than parents who are absent or childlike due to idiosyncrasy.

Let's go with idiosyncrasy. The parents are mad scientists and have developed a statis chamber which is ready for human testing. The testing process goes wrong, probably due to familial chaos intruding on the basement lab. Preferably, this will be the fault of the child protagonist, and the funnier the sequence is, the better. I bet it involves undisciplined pets, younger siblings, and some activity that the protagonist feels is unreasonably restricted by fussy parental rules. (Why shouldn't the toddler ride the goat? The goat doesn't mind and the toddler loves it.) In any case, the result is that the parents are both in stasis at the same time for an extended period - say, all summer break.

Because of their particular lifestyle, no other adult particularly expects to see them during this period, so the protagonist anticipates no difficulty covering up the family's unsupervised state. She (or he; I generally prefer female protagonists so let's go with she; in fact, let's call her Mirasol just to make things easy) even looks forward to her parents returning from stasis and seeing how much better she ran things in their absence than they ever do. She already does all the work around here anyway! Paying bills in these days of online banking requires only a low-level degree of hacking that a perspicacious seventh-grader may well be up for, especially if her eccentric mad scientist parents have found it convenient to let her know a couple of passwords, possibly absent-mindedly revealing their own in the process of helping her set up her own.

Of course it isn't as simple as that.

Much as we all enjoy the Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson/Little House on the Prairie idea of families or individuals as independent economic units, it never works that way. No one is self-sufficient. No one. Even hermits require mail service. The anchorite on top of a rock who never speaks to anybody needs an active community below that sends food up to him. I may make my own clothes but I don't make my own thread or weave my own fabric and even if I did, I would still need to get the wool or cotton or whatever to make them. Specialization lies at the root of civilization - the more time you have to spend on survival, the less time you have for art, for conversation, for play - for life as you prefer to live it, so you specialize in something that enables you to acquire everything else in exchange.

Marisol's workload will vary depending on the composition of her family and its specific requirements. If it's just her, the toddler, and the goat then she cannot get any help from within the family. If she has a sibling close in age to herself then help will be available, but at the cost of a time-consuming power struggle. No brother or sister ever tired of saying: "You're not the boss of me," and without an acknowledged authority to mediate Marisol may be surprised at just how exhausting it is to make other people do even what is in their own best interests. This will start at the level of familiar-as-dirt disputes over dishwashing and bedtimes, but should in the spirit of the premise escalate to bigger, more absurd disputes over such matters as which lies to tell which grown-ups, how the escape-proof goat pen should be constructed, and whether or not it's an acceptable use of funds to hire a pavilion for a birthday party and invite the entire fifth grade (minus mortal enemies).

Marisol will at some point have to recruit someone outside the immediate family into the secret. This cannot be anyone whose authority she can be forced to recognize, but should be someone with whom she is on more or less equal terms, such as her best friend. Secrets are harder to keep the more people share them, and this initial sharing in order to get help could escalate quickly. If the secret is uncovered by someone who does not have her best interests at heart - the aforesaid mortal enemy, or even someone with a separate problem that can be solved by blackmailing Marisol into some action she would normally refuse to take, such as allowing a runaway teen to live in the basement - then we get an escalation of tension, which will probably require her to bring in more allies and create ever more complicated situations.

And all the time the deadline is looming - Mom and Dad will come out of stasis on Labor Day, at which time the house must be more or less in order and the results of their work on the stasis chamber ready to present to whoever is financing it (because even mad scientists need grant money these days).

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

An Internet Prayer

(I direct this to my higher self but if you’re not agnostic feel free to adapt for whatever.)

Grant me the serenity to accept myself the way I am,
to extend the same courtesy to everyone else (even the jerkwads),
to stand up for my rights with generosity and humor,
and the wisdom to check my privilege.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Devil Kid

So this month's Fortean Times, that neverfailing font of inspiration, contains a two-page article on "The Devil Kid of Newburg," which turns out to be a report of a newspaper hoax that went viral in 1888. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and what the internet does now merely duplicates what newspapers and word of mouth used to do. Basically, a joker at the Cleveland Plain Dealer made up a story about a woman who gave birth to a child with bright red skin, horns, and a tail, and caused a media sensation, as well as a host of people claiming that they (or their friend, or their friend's friend, or their friend's friend's brother's mother-in-law's doctor, or some equally unimpeachable source) had seen "it."

In all the quotations in the article, the supposed baby is referred to as "it," and spoken of as being necessarily evil and frightening; even though the commonly-accepted reason for the set of deformities was the belief that the mother had seen a play featuring a costumed devil character, been frightened by it, and imprinted her fear in tangible form on the baby - a theory of the causes of deformity of considerable antiquity. Which is hardly the baby's fault.

The description given in the paper by the imaginary nurse present at the imaginary birth is initially pathetic rather than frightening: "It was all coiled up in a sort of ball and looked red, like a big bunch of flesh...I supposed the child was dead - it seemed to be only a ball of flesh." At least, the impression on me was strong enough that I recoiled from the nurse, rather than the baby, when she said it made her sick, and the subsequent description of how it uncoiled itself in a flash of blue fire, smell of brimstone, etc. did not counterbalance my disgust at the nurse's response to the birth being disgust rather than compassion.

Of course it hardly matters how I feel about a fictional nurse in such an ephemeral story - except that it isn't an ephemeral story at all, as Jane Addams discovered some years later, when rumor had a similar baby being sheltered at Hull House, and people pestered the life out the staff trying to get in to see (again) "it." Addams being Addams, she profited from this, not monetarily, but intellectually and spiritually, trying to understand the appeal of the story for those who demanded to see the supposedly hidden Devil Baby, and drawing some interesting conclusions. The link is directly to an article by her that appeared in the Atlantic in 1916 and I recommend it to the thoughtful reader.

With no such wise student of humanity to engage with the story at the Plain Dealer, we are left with the unedifying spectacle of vicious, vulgar ableism in its presentation, and the reflection that at least it wasn't a true story; no child with red hair, horns, hooves, and the rest of it ever had to try to grow up with such nasty people staring at, judging, and objectifying him or her. No real person had to carry the moral and social weight of such a morally-charged deformity.

Did they?

What if someone had?

What if the Newburg baby - or the Hull House baby, who would at least have had Miss Addams in his or her corner - really had been born? No supernatural powers (no room for Hellboy in this notion); no brimstone; just little horns and a twitchety tail and red skin?

What happens to that child, in the real world?

Note that (unless we go with hooflike feet) none of the conditions marking this as a "devil baby" are in and of themselves disabling. Horns don't impede when walking up stairs; red skin doesn't affect how big a load you can carry or how fast you can learn a new skill; a tail may even improve one's balance and improve performance of some physical tasks. Yet I suspect she would have trouble, as an adult, finding employment; and would have had difficulty getting an education.

But then, a lot of conditions which are widely recognized as disabling are only so because they don't match assumptions about how the world is supposed to be configured. A few mechanical adjustments, ramps instead of steps or equipment that can easily be adjusted for height and so on, wipe out many disabilities quickly and easily and let's not get started on that rant.

Would someone recognizable as a "devil baby" have any choice but to grow up to behave either anti-socially (being treated as evil by everyone makes it nearly impossible, and not at all rewarding, to be good) or pathologically saintlike? What coping mechanisms could she develop? How would she spend her time? What would she want versus what she would be able to get?

Does it make a noticeable difference when and where she is born? A "devil baby" born in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it appears, would have been exhibited for cash. Would one born earlier or in a different context have been murdered at birth? Would not one born today be subjected to extensive and medically unnecessary plastic surgery?

This could be satire, with a devilish-looking baby insouciantly exposing the moral poverty of those around her. This could be tragedy in ways I hardly need to spell out to you. You would win my undying admiration if you could convincingly make a it a feel-good movie, without a bunch of Disney sentiment (oh, Lord, wouldn't the Disney character of this be cute as a button, once you got used to him?), because peculiar-looking people need happy endings, too.

Especially happy endings which don't remove the peculiar appearance. Ugly is in the heart of the beholder and recognizing and gaining power over that, rather than adapting one's own appearance to suit the standards of the ugly at heart, is part and parcel of a happy ending for such a person.