Sunday, September 28, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Humans Among Them

So we've all read and identified with stories of aliens among humans. I've written them myself (my first book, Otto from Otherwhere, and there's a short story about an alien anthropologist living in a trailer park in the December '91 issue of Asimov's). In a world where everyone (even those people most catered to by society, who are often the biggest crybabies about how misunderstood they are) feels isolated and picked on, this is natural enough. Space aliens, fay, wild talents - in addition to such characters being inherently cool they also provide a paradoxically safe metaphorical way to explore the very real grievances of the marginalized without upsetting the gatekeepers of literature, who are inevitably invested in the status quo, too awfully much. Which is a problem in itself but I'm not dealing the problems of society today, I'm looking at a problem in the tropes, which is -

That in the abductee literature from which the alien-in-human-society tropes are derived, what actually happens is that a human goes to live in alien society.

Changelings are abducted by fairies and kept for a time; possibly seven years, possibly life. The entity left in exchange for the changeling dies, either because it was a sickly fairy child elected for the swap because it wasn't going to live, because it was an old fay disguised as an infant, or because it was a stock of wood to begin with. (Or because the parents tortured it to death trying to get it to reverse the swap. There is an ugly, ugly reality behind the changeling myth and again, not going into that today.) In the alien abduction narratives of the nineties, human men and women were used for reproductive purposes, but the alien hybrid babies were either cultivated with stolen genes or harvested after a short incubation period and taken away, though sometimes the parents were allowed to see them briefly. In neither tradition is the alien raised in human society; the reverse is always true.

The fates of fairy changelings are occasionally explored in modern fantasy, but the emphasis is not on their experience, but on the efforts of the changeling's family to rescue them, or on the perceptions outsiders in the fairy court have of them. There's a disjunct between fairy traditions, which universally declare that the motive of the fairies in abducting babies is to raise them as their own children, and modern tropes, which tend to portray changelings as pets or slaves, a fate reserved for adults taken by fairies in the oral literature. The literary beginning of this change in perception of fairy motives is marked by the conflict between Titania, who wants to keep her dead human friend's child to raise, and Oberon, who wants to use him as a servant, which kicks off the magic hijinks in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (It has always bothered me that Oberon, having used an enchantment to cheat Titania of her adopted son, is allowed to retain this victory.) I am not aware of any science fiction that has yet treated the alien hybrid raised among aliens experience in any significant way.

I start here from my usual standpoint in dealing with Fortean material. I am not interested in whether or not the abduction experience has an objective reality; but for the purposes of a fiction I feel obliged to deal with the source material as if it is objectively true within the fictional world. Despite the broad similarities in the abduction experience that researchers (particularly John Mack and Budd Hopkins) claimed to find, there's a lot of leeway in this source material. Even the classic abductors, the Gray Aliens, have a surprising amount of variety when looked at in detail; and the reasons they gave for the cross-breeding project were vague and contradictory. Were they trying to inject some hybrid vigor into their own inbred and over-refined species? Were they trying to create a master race made up of a little bit of the genetic potential of all the intelligent races in the galaxy/universe/interdimensional crossroads/whatever unit of space/time they're dealing with? Were they trying to preserve the human race, which is scheduled to drive itself to extinction in the foreseeable future (which may yet be quite a long time, if the aliens think in geologic time spans and humans in terms of human lifetimes)? Was this pure or applied research? Presumably some of the inconsistencies between stories involve different factions with different purposes for similar research (think how many different specific experiments white mice and Rhesus monkeys who share the experience of taking part in medical research would have to compare) - what are the implications of these factions for the alien hybrids they create?

I get why this hasn't been done. You'd - well, I'd, some people are less fussed about this than me - have to read a whole bunch of abduction literature (and it'd be best if you could read Spanish and Portuguese, because there's an extensive South American abduction literature which is not available in translation) and do a lot of extrapolative world-building, just to figure out what kind of environment the human hybrid protagonist is raised in. Mother ship? Space station? Planet-based colony? Home planet? Are they adopted out to normal alien families, or raised in a creche with other half-humans, or with a melting pot of different species of hybrids?

What normal human abilities seem magic, funny, contemptible, or cute to normal aliens? Do people pity them for not being able to see infrared, and dismiss the ability to see the frequencies we think of as "visible light" as a trivial party trick? Do humans who can't develop psi power past the point of receiving telepathic communication and feeling when someone is staring at them get treated as defective? Do intersex hybrids, fitting into the norms of their alien society, have an advantage over hybrids who fall definitively into "male" and "female" categories? Is the heroine inherently scary because she has teeth? Is she disadvantaged in public spaces because she only has five fingers on each hand and is not naturally ambidextrous? Are her mating choices dictated or restricted? Do people stereotype her based on what they read in popular novels? Is she romanticized by one group, vilified by another? Is there a hybrid solidarity movement; and does it truly serve the needs of all hybrids? Do they love the alien parents who raised them and regard their human progenitors as strange and distant? Do they even know they're hybrids?

How do you write all this without making it just another lame metaphorical saga encompassing all marginalized groups and representing none?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Writing Life

So what do you do when the market research once again has devolved into deciding "nope, that agent's a crappy match too," checking tumbler one more, and staring hostilely at the next in line? And the floor hasn't been swept all week and the dishes need doing (and you know for a fact that cat has walked all over the cutting board so, bleach) and the mending is still there?

You go write more story, of course.

Because who are you if you don't do that?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


It's Voter Registration Day (been registered for decades, so no worries; how about you?) and Bisexual Visibility Day, so here I am, bisexual and monogamous, popping up to be visible even though it's not your business. Or because it's not your business, but people act as though it is. If it were Omnivore Visibility Day I'd be popping up to say much the same thing, omnivore and vegetarian - the first by necessity, the second by choice. Biology is not destiny. I do not have to eat everything; do not have to act on every attraction; do not have to fit into anybody else's notion of what my category should be like; should not have to say this stuff, but "should" is a poor concept for dealing with reality, and the reality is that if we do not assert our own realities, other people will drown us in their illusions about who we should be, what we should do, and how we should live.

It occurs to me that my last several posts may be giving people an impression that I am more depressed than I am. I am not in any state to be worried about. I am not even, strictly speaking, feeling uncommunicative. Only I am tired of talking about things, and want to tell stories, and blogs are not for telling stories. I keep up with my tumblr just fine, because all that requires is posting pictures from my sims game and making story of what happened (with dialog in the captions and no attempt at plot), which that audience likes well enough to suit my purposes.

Everything I have ever learned always goes into stories, often before I can articulate it in any abstract fashion. Unfortunately the process of getting those stories where they can be read involves other kinds of communication, which are like pushing rocks uphill sometimes. So I learn to do them, with varying degrees of success, in much the same spirit that I vote on election day and make bald statements on Bi Visibility Day. They are small things and often feel futile, but not doing them is, in fact, futile, so - go for broke.

So excuse me. I should go write a query, but suspect I will go write story instead. (I also suspect that I am dragging my feet getting to the climax of the WIP because once that's done, the first draft will be over and I will have to commence making permanent decisions about how to arrange all this stuff, which will be hard; and then I'll have to try to sell it, which will be harder.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Yet More Fun with First Lines

"Sing," said the king; so the pig sang "Rock of Ages" and the princess listened politely.

The solution occurred to her while doing the dishes; it seemed a bit extreme, but she was fed up, and if she could pull it off, she could close this down and move on to a fresh set of problems.

The world ended the day before the wedding, but they didn't let that stop them.

The trouble with volunteers, Death thought, was that they were never fit for the job.

No one would help him - he was entirely the wrong part of town - but with nothing to lose, he figured he might as well rub their faces in it, and started yelling anyway.

The black-skinned dwarfs of Pekhra and Mevarkha did better wire, gold, and silverwork, but the pale-skinned ones from the coast made better swords and stronger beer.

She liked Halloween because her sister always came home for it.

The cats assembled every Friday night in the back yard of the old Johnson place.

She was tired of talking, so she stopped.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It's All Kicking My Butt At the Moment

Some days you can't.

Some days you can.

Some days you can't, and do anyway.

Some days you can, and don't anyway.

No reliable way of distinguishing these days exists.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Friends We Do Not Know

This will take some time to drill down to the core, so bear with me.

So. One of the things that had my mouth too full of things to say to say anything, this past week, was the death of a person whose name I do not know.

Human beings are such intensely social animals that we are, for better or worse, constantly creating relationships with abstractions - from personal relationships with God or our cars, to loyalty to the public personae of politicians and entertainers, to fan crushes on characters in books and movies. Like everything else humans do, whether this tendency is a good thing or a bad thing depends on what we do with it. The more we let our egos control the transaction, the more likely we are to be fanatics rather than saints, or stalkers rather than supporters.

The advent of long-distance communication enabled a new kind of relationship, the correspondent. We think of the phenomenon of having friends we've never seen as being one peculiar to the internet age, but in fact it goes back much further than that. You only need to delve into the biographies of the major figures of the past, or the letter columns of nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines, to see fruitful, even intense, friendships form between people who would never have met without a forum of common interest, and who might never have seen each other's faces. (Also, flamewars. Edgar Allan Poe's life was consumed by flamewars.) The internet has made this sort of relationship far more pervasive - anyone reading this is likely to have at least one, and probably many, friends who are known primarily through social media.

Elaine Marie Alphin was one such person, to me. I met her face-to-face once, when we were both up for an Edgar one year. Her books are important to me in ways that are difficult to articulate, and I mourn her unselfconsciously, and kick myself for not writing to her more (ever; what is the matter with me?) when she was locked in after her stroke. She is not mine to mourn in the same way that she is for her husband and family, but there is nothing problematic about it. I have an understandable relationship to her; one not too different from the relationship with the fellow X-phile (still living, thank goodness) I met on AOL, who taught me to birdwatch and provided a much-needed neutral sounding board with whom to work out certain matters during the Year from Hell, before I was ready to talk about them to anyone closer; and who eventually I met when she invited us to stay with her for a time during the recovery period; an invaluable break from the pressure of the familiar. You have internet friends like these, yourself. You know what I mean.

Similarly, I was able to mourn Robin Williams's death at the fan level. I admired his work and related to his condition; I knew his face and voice; at the same time, I understood that he did not know me from Adam's off ox and owed me nothing, which diminished my personal reaction to this death not one whit. This is a situation with which we are all familiar, in which we all participate. In a consumerist, celebrity culture much can become problematic about the fan relationship, but at its root we've got it sorted. In a way, public emotional involvement, whether celebration or mourning, for public figures even gives us important outlets for private feelings that are more difficult to share - for a person of my age, mourning Williams also allows us to mourn many things related to who we were the first time we saw Mork.

But then we come to Mootilda. That is the only name I know her by, though if I could bear to go poking around her profile and the news thread about her death enough I might be able to find out her real one. Maybe not. If she'd wanted me to know her name, I figure, I'd know it. The only face I have for her is her avatar, a cartoon cow. We never discussed personal things at all, but we were in a creative group together and I could not have created Widespot, or kept my original neighborhood going so long, without her advice and her work. She was a giant on the Mod the Sims newsgroup, because no one, anywhere, probably including the people who created it, understood the coding of the Sims2 game the way Mootilda did. She was constantly studying it, answering questions, running tests. She created tools that alleviated the tendency of the code to build up critical masses of corruption, discovered new sources of corruption and explained how to avoid them; sometimes even took other people's malfunctioning neighborhoods and looked through them herself (a major time sink) in order to understand what was going on and evolve strategies to deal with it. She helped me. She helped a lot of us. And all the time she had terminal cancer and now she is dead and I do not know her name and she's a cartoon cow.

The relationship was not personal. It was not professional, since it was rooted in a hobby. It was not entirely one-sided, since we had conversations. It wasn't exactly a fan relationship. What was it? How do I deal with it? The newsgroup's thread on the news is pages and page long, mostly people saying the same things over and over, and whether they only ever lurked and used her mods, or worked with her on something, to almost all of us, her name is Mootilda and she looks like a cartoon cow. How can we laugh when it's so sad? How can we cry when it's so absurd? We just can. There's no fighting it.

You have relationships like this, too.

So does your audience.

It is part of the writer's job to work out the ramifications of relationships, all kinds of relationships, through story. We structure our lives according to the stories we tell (which is why representation matters and the dominance of straight white male protagonists is a problem) - but we have no stories about this relationship.

And we need them.

But how do we start? How do we take a relationship that happens entirely in an abstract space, between abstractions of people (Mootilda knew my real name because I don't use handles, but presumably when she thought of me she saw the extreme close-up of my two favorite sims slow dancing that is my avatar on that newsgroup), and make that part of an interesting story? Obviously something else must be going on in the protagonist's life.

As it is in all our lives. If these abstract relationships are at the core of our stories, something's wrong. But if something's wrong, why - that's a story.

But I don't want to write a story in which the online relationships are the problem. Because that's BS. Though it's possible to run away from one's life into an online fantasy, you'll only do that if your real life is profoundly unsatisfactory. And it's not always true, especially for young people, especially for sick people, especially for people marginalized by the dominant narratives of modern society, that your real life is profoundly unsatisfactory because of anything you did or have control over.

I hate having this kind of idea, the one that presses itself to me as an obligation without coughing up any specifics. I need a character. I need a concrete problem. I need the online relationships to be part of the solution. And I need this to engage a reader, to have setting, movement, action, and suspense.

Stop turning to jelly in my hands every time I try to grapple you, Idea!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sometimes... just have to accept that something that Shouldn't Be, Is, and go forward from there. do something with long ranging consequences, and never know it.

...problems sort themselves out in your sleep.

..."writer's block" is the result of having too much to say.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Hammer? Nail? Sparrow? Snail?

We all know that to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But have you considered that, to a person with a nail, everything looks like a hammer?

This is one of the key points made in Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos, (which I'm about to Spoil big time - so go off and read it; it doesn't take that long) in which the character Terrance Cee, who has been raised by those who wish to mass-produce his gene for telepathy and use him and other telepaths for intergalactic espionage. He's very bitter about even having the gene, knows how to use telepathy as a weapon, and is cynical about the motives of the people he meets when he first ventures into the civilian world with goals of his own. When he meets Ethan, an obstetrician from an all-male planet (just read it!) he hides his abilities; when Ethan discovers them anyway, he is braced for what will happen when his erstwhile friend realizes what telepathy can do. Ethan, however, is delighted, thinking of the possibilities for medical uses with preverbal children and stroke patients.

You do something besides writing stories. Everybody does. You see a lot of superpowers in the media - everybody does, whether it's called a superpower, or magic. In the movies, these powers tend to be used in the context of interpersonal conflicts. A Villain wants to use his superpower to Rule the World; a Hero wants to use it to Save the World.

But you are not a Villain or a Hero. What do you want to do with it?

What does a plumber want to do with it? A vet? A nurse? A teacher? A janitor? A librarian? A lawyer? A waitress?

A single parent? A thrownaway child? A new widow? A lonely goatherd?

Does a person who has been blind since birth use a superpower differently from a sighted person, a color-blind person, a person blinded only recently?

What are the logical consequences of that?

Can you make a viable story built around a superpower that is not used as a weapon, but as the actual solution to an actual problem?

Try, and find out.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Have Another Entrance to the Labyrinth of Knowledge

I was just talking about research, so here's an online database of print sources on miscellaneous subjects: The University of Oxford Text Archive.

I doubt it'd help much with a book set at the end of the Civil War in Texas (a quick search reveals nothing with "Texas" in the title at all so far), but type in "fever" and see what you get! If your hero is a doctor, and the setting is the 18th century, you've got yourself an afternoon's work right here.

I am a late adopter of all new things, and generally prefer to go to a library and pile books up around me when I'm researching rather than getting online, which is a crapshoot of a kind I'm less comfortable with; but online collections do save a lot of road trips. They're just like real collections in a lot of ways - always expanding, always organized not quite perfectly for the project you're working on, always with inaccessible corners you can't get at (the missing book, the text that hasn't been input yet), always full of things you didn't know you should be looking for. Library angels can't shove books off the shelf onto your head online, but they have other dodges.

As long as you actively engage with your research, learning and searching dynamically, you will eventually find what you need, whether you knew you needed it or not. You will catch sight of things out of the corners of your eyes; your cat will walk on the keyboard and activate a macro you didn't know about; you will overhear a conversation on the bus that bypasses all your "mind your own business" censors to give you A Clue. To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; to a person with an open research subject, everything relates back to that subject.

But you need to ask that first pertinent question, to penetrate the intimidating wall of of words. All you need is one call sign, one search term, to lead you into the maze, and the focus to follow your data, rather than trying to lead it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Not Really a Review of The Giver Movie Adaptation

So, my husband and I went to see The Giver this weekend, and it's not a bad adaptation, except for the ending.

Now, as you may recall, the ending of The Giver makes most people want to throw the book across the room, because that sled shouldn't be there. And after having successfully suspended your disbelief and invested in the characters for the entire book, you either have to accept that the only way to read what you've been reading is as a gigantic metaphorical construction in which the sled can be there; or construct some kind of logical bridge. That one memory isn't a dream, it's precognition (which, since the source of the memories - many of which are much, much too old to have been the direct memory or anyone involved in founding the Communities - does kind of work - if memory is not limited in time backward then it needn't be limited in time forward, either). Or it's dying delerium and Jonas and Gabe are dying in the snow, which nobody wants.

That the book does this to us, and is still so widely loved and admired, is a tribute both to its quality, and to the adaptive qualities of booklovers. One of the pleasures of narrative is closure; but give us sufficient motive, and readers will do without it and like it.

The weakness of movies, at least as they are made today, is that the makers of them don't feel they can trust audiences to do this. So the movie presents us with the ultimate of Insoluble Problems, demonstrates that the Return to Eden doesn't solve it, either, and then - gives us an ending which pretends to solve it. Or at least return it to square one. The movie feels required to give us what Lowry didn't, and therefore weakens its capacity to leave the story working in us after we throw the book across the room/leave the theater.

(By the way, if anybody out there wants to give me money to adapt any of my books in ways I don't really like - go ahead and give me the money. I'll undertake to stay away from the movie.)