Discovering My Sub(counscious)text

Welcome to the first of my novel process blogs, an occasional series that will appear as I have time and ideas and continue until it does not.

Today I’m talking about my experience, which I assume at least some other writers share, of discovering what my writing is ‘about’ as I write. What I mean by ‘about’ is the kind of subtext/allegory/deeper meaning that we were all taught to look for in high school English class. I don’t discover the plot and characters as I write. I need to decide on those beforehand, or I can’t write them down, but each time I return to my novel in progress, there are new things for me to realize nonetheless.

I went into my current work with some ideas about what it would be ‘about’. Specifically, I went in thinking about a story that would start as a very traditional hereditary chosen-one narrative, with traditional monarchist/feudal fantasy politics, but hopefully develop into an interrogation of those things. As a person deeply immersed in the section of the twittersphere covering the intersection of genre fiction and left-leaning politics, I’ve read many times in the last year or two about the importance of examining fantasy’s reflexive monarchism and long preoccupation with bloodline inheritance, and it makes a lot of sense to me. I made a choice to examine the trope I digested so many times, and I hope I manage to do it in a way that works and stays true to my old loves and my current politics.

In a less explicit way, I suppose I also went in expecting to write about a somewhat lonely, very studious, somewhat introspective child/young adult, because my protagonist is a teen and I have primarily my own experience of being a teen to inform my characterization of her.

It has turned out, two-thirds of the way into the book, that it’s going to about some other things:

This novel has a world falling into chaos, down to the weather and the passage of time, and it’s turned out to have something to say about climate change. I wasn’t intending to write about that, but there’s something to be read in what I have so far about communities changing and failing to change in response to a changing world.

It also has turned out that the book will be about solipsism, cultural imperialism, and anthropocentrism. This is less surprising than the global warming thing. I like philosophy, and I guess it was inevitable that a story about reality being defined by human magic would end up being about self and human centered philosophy. I suppose those are really more like subjects my initial idea was implicitly about that I’ve only realized explicitly as I write the first draft.

There are also certainly some things said about relationships and gender politics that I didn’t plan, but that arose from the narratives I found interesting for the characters, and what began as a critique of fantasized feudalism has expanded to, in my mind at least, consider the way in which capitalism reduces workers to their functions and forgets their humanity.

All that is just what I went in with and have discovered myself as I write two thirds of a first draft. In another month, I’ll send these pages to my writing group, and they will surely find new themes and subtexts that I am entirely ignorant of. A few months back, I learned in group critique that my hastily chosen name for a formerly nameless character, selected off the top of my head to improve the flow of a few sentences, inserted an entirely spurious folklore reference into a story already full of intentional ones.

I love this process, and I find it worth rambling about here, because discovering these potential subtexts in my work is a process of discovering my own inarticulate preoccupations. The meaning that appears in my work is, undeniably, a large part of what I have been thinking about for the past months of writing. Each time I find a new thread in the text, I have the chance to look at something that’s been bubbling below the threshold of my internal monologue and understand what has been bothering or fascinating the parts of my mind I don’t corral for conscious work. Even as a detailed outliner, these undercurrents can surprise me and change my own thinking about the text, and it is always wonderful to find new things in what I am creating.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 7: Machineries of Empire Series, by Yoon Ha Lee

I have seen this series called space-opera or space fantasy. I don’t really know how to define the first, and I fear the second is often used to belittle science fiction that isn’t written by and for physics majors. To me, Machineries of Empire reads very much as science fiction, some of the most novel and exciting science fiction I have read in years. These are books about war and intrigue in a complex, rigidly organized society whose aristocrats have strange, psychic/magical powers. They spend a huge portion of their prose on exposition, description, and backstory. It is tense, engaging, beautiful, and difficult to put down. Here are some of my thoughts on the really important elements of that apparent contradiction, which I am hurriedly stuffing into this bag for my own use.

Big ideas really can be fascinating. Idea fiction is hard, like super hard, and I am particularly hard ground for many flavors of that particular seed. I did philosophy in college, and I bounce off a lot of work grounded in philosophical ideas from my own preference for rigor. Machineries of Empire is all about big ideas, about the nature of trust, of government, about the purpose of civilization on a galactic scale, and it is fascinating. The characters care so deeply about these questions that we as readers must as well. Lee’s characters care so deeply about these questions, about the potential for individuals to change and influence their fate in the great system, about the religious/political constitution of the empire and what it means. Machineries of Empire was able to make me care about big ideas that I did not come into the story looking for in way I am still barely beginning to understand as a matter of technique.

You can world-build forever if your world is cool enough. Lee spends a lot of time just teaching the reader about the world of the Hexarchate and its neighbors, how the government, and the religion, and the technology work, how it all came to be and how it evolved over centuries. Those long dives into history and science/magic mechanics and technology are some of the best parts, because the history and technology and magic/religion/government are incredibly cool, surprising, exciting ideas. These books have exotic (as in exotic physics) technologies that only function in those parts of space where everyone on the relevant space stations and planets follows/believes in/conforms to the appropriate calendar, and a vast government/religion whose raison d’être is enforcing that conformity. There are soldiers who voluntarily take on a compulsion to obey superior officers so strong refusal is fatal. The world is so rich and interesting that I never resented a long dive into it, away from the theoretically more proximate action of the main plot.

Awesome names do work. A huge part of the world building and delicious immersion of Machineries of Empire is done with names, evocative, strange names that are either never explained or only explained much later. When I read “ninefox crowned with eyes,” or “Kniferose” or “The Fortress of Spinshot Coins,” or hear of the terrible “threshold winnower,” I am immediately placed in a fascinating, alien world. Names do so much for the world of Machineries of Empire. They put you immediately in the flood of a new world and invite you to swim after brilliant, unknown fish. (more on my love of deep-end first world-building in a forthcoming blog on China Mieville; more on my love of complicated names in literally everything I manage to publish.) Lee claims not to be a visual writer, but the names do more work than most descriptions, and give readers (at least me) an endless succession of vivid images, or the sensation of having an image even if it is hazy, which is just as good.

Caring about individuals when dealing with conflict on a galactic scale is revolutionary and difficult. A society that encompasses hundreds of planets, that is united by faster than light travel and the strange contortions of a religious/calendrical system that enables that travel, necessarily contains a vast amount of human suffering, of people overlooked and neglected, or ground in the uncaring wheels of a vast bureaucracy. The Hexarchate of Lee’s novels contains quite a bit more, since the calendar that permits the technology that maintains the empire to function requires regular public torture and execution of heretics. In such a large, cruel world, it is revolutionary to have power and to care about the powerless as individuals. Lee’s heroes do that, and it makes them special beyond the power of brilliance or strength to do so. To have a novel of vast conflict and intrigue and make its heart one of care is powerful, and it reinforces the importance of care for the constitution of government and the personalities of those few who can move the levers of power. It is always worth remembering the power of care, especially when the size of the world and its troubles seems to dwarf our individual complaints.

Machineries of Empire encompasses the already released Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, with the forthcoming Revenant Gun.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 6: Hunger Makes the Wolf, By Alex Wells

Full disclosure to begin: Alex bought my first story sale. The goodwill I have for them, for that, and for how lovely they were during editing, is hard to overstate. It’s a major reason I got this book to read the first time. It is very much not why I am writing this article now.

I read Hunger Makes the Wolf in one day. I did nothing else. I had not planned to spend my Saturday doing nothing but reading, but I opened the book, and then I had no choice but to continue. Be warned; it is difficult to stop this train once it leaves the station. Be sure you have set aside the time you need to make the journey, but do make sure to take it. Hunger Makes the Wolf is entirely worth whatever space you can make for it. Here are some fumbles at why, as I try to find a way to distill a little of the same pulse-pounding pull into my own work.

Visceral description makes everything realer and more compelling. From the first sentence of Hunger Makes the Wolf, you can taste the grit of Tanegawa’s World between your teeth, feel the heat of the desert and the sweat under your leathers. The powerfully present physicality of the characters’ experience transports you into the setting on a bedrock level. Even now, months after my last reading, I can conjure the heat and dust and sound of the story in a moment. I strive for viscerality, for that closeness, in my own writing, and I have no idea if I achieve it, but Wells never lets you down. From start to finish, you can place yourself right under the skin of the world and the immersion gives the story weight.

Solidarity is the foundation of resistance. Hunger Makes the Wolf is, at its heart, a union story. The villain is the corporate overlord, and the heroines are the core of a resistance. Wells understands, very well if you follow their real-world social media presence, the nature and history of corporate violence and oppression and the need for solidarity on all levels, to resistance. Hunger Makes the Wolf showcases the quest for a broad union, between communities, between workers of different industries, but also at the personal level. It is the strength of personal bonds that lets the heroes of this story be heroic. Hob and Mags trust each other, and they are the hinges of a power that can fight a corporation bigger than the interstellar government and win, at least for a little while. Hob trusts her gang, and they trust her to lead. They don’t think each other perfect; they understand the foibles and weaknesses and bad decisions that their friends have made and will continue to make, but they build something together. That core of trust and action together is a worthwhile lesson, for society and for writing. Friendship can move mountains. Solidarity can re-shape the world. It takes the small to build the large, and together the poor and insignificant can shake the thrones of the mighty.

Fear also build coalitions. Hunger Makes the Wolf is a story about solidarity, but it is also a story about witch hunts, quite literal ones. The corporation preys on fear of the other, and on fear of being labelled among the undesirable, to make the people of Tanegawa’s world police themselves and purge people suspected of having power the corporation fears, and it works, sometimes extremely well. Even people who know what the right thing will be do the wrong thing when it will keep them safe. From the outside, a mob and a community coming together look very similar, and Hunger Makes the Wolf has both, and makes you understand how people who are not particular evil by nature become so when they are pushed toward it.

There are different kinds of strength, and they are all important. Hob is a biker and a fighter and witch, and she does violence and rides the desert, and that matters. Mags is a miner’s daughter and a talker and an organizer. She builds networks and reads people and convinces them, and that matters. It takes a clever hand to make space for fire-magic and reckless gunplay, and careful building of a half-secret network of solidarity to feel important as part of the same larger puzzle, and Wells does an amazing job with it.

Heavy subjects don’t mean a heavy book. This all sounds really serious doesn’t it? I have not managed to approximate the tone of Hunger Makes the Wolf in this blog about it. The book is a fast-driving good time, full of perfect action and occasional tenderness, with delightful humor and plenty of stand and pump your fist moments. When I try to learn from Hunger Makes the Wolf, that’s the heart of what I’m aiming at: something that deals with weighty, topical things without reading like a tract or an epic. Hunger Makes the Wolf is fun, so much fun, and there is still more to come back and enjoy once all the twists and plunges of the rollercoaster are familiar. It’s an alchemy of prose and concept and humor and joy that makes a book that is satisfying in a single huge gulp or a long savoring. Definitely give it a look.

Once you’ve enjoyed Hunger Makes the Wolf, you can pre-order the sequel, Blood Binds the Pack at your local bookstore or on Amazon.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part Five: Persons Non Grata, by Cassandra Khaw

Persons Non Grata is currently two linked, but entirely stand-alone horror novellas by the delightful Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. The books are beautifully short and driven, perfect for reading in a single sitting. I read Hammers on Bone in an hour on the train, and was extremely sad to have no more to read when I was done. These books are worth devouring, sharp and dangerous and richly sweet and broken glass made from honey and butter. They are my absolute favorite pieces of modern Lovecraftian horror, preserving the power of cosmic horror better than anything else I’ve read. I want to steal almost everything about these books, perhaps enough that I should consider simply consuming them whole, to absorb the entirety of their power. Until I work up the jaw strength and gastric fortitude for that, here are some of the pieces I think are most important.

There is vast terror, and there are small, personal hurts, and both are needed to sharpen the other. Cosmic horror, the horror of a vast and peopled universe filled with intelligences that waver between utter indifference and active malice towards the life of individuals and of humanity as a whole can, and in Persons Non Grata does, create a pall of dread that heightens the emotion of reading. But this play on the strings of anxiety cannot become proximate and sudden without a certain diminishment. In Khaw’s stories, the dread is sharpened by the pricks of smaller, more ordinary horrors, by neglect, loss, hunger, poverty, and the pain of lonely, frightened child. These small hurts twist the knife in skin that universal dread has sensitized, and the confluence is delicious and terrible. The dread too is made more with these little barbs to pull it closer. The end of the world is more real when you can see why someone would desire it, why the building of little pains could make the end of everything seem like a panacea.

Pain hurts, and you feel every second. Cassandra Khaw is the finest writer I have read for describing the experience of physical pain. She makes it hurt, but spins just enough art into the pain that I don’t white-out and stop imagining the whole sensation. That’s often how it goes for me. I note that pain is part of the scenario, but it drifts to the back of my imagination of the scene, because it’s quite unpleasant. Khaw keeps the pain close and real and hurting just the right amount. It works so well in these horrors, to make success cost enough. Even when the heroes win, you can feel the damage, and it keeps building up. That feeling of pain that stays, victory that costs for more than scene, is something I am trying hard to learn from Persons Non Grata.

Gorgeous prose can keep the sharpest edge. Very often, our reflex is to associate elaborate prose with distancing, with slowness or absurdity. The tortured thesaurus diving of Lovecraft and his imitators brings a jarring note of unintended humor to the horror. If purple prose is prose that jars or calls unnecessary attention to itself with its elaboration, then there is nothing purple about Khaw’s writing. Her language shines dark and rich and smooth as molasses pouring from the jar, cuts sharp and raw as a frozen knife breaking your skin. There is more than enough weight to take it between your teeth and grind the last drop of flavor out by slow savoring, but the pace of the story pulls you on faster than that, even through the luxury of language. Not a bit of Khaw’s prose erodes the horror of her narrative. If anything, it reinforces it. The lush, vibrant prose reveals more details to disturb, just enough to make your imagination form a more vivid picture than fainter brushstrokes could reveal. As you may be able to tell, I have a love for elegant and expansive writing, and perhaps aspirations to match Khaw’s command of such.

Even in the impossible darkness between uncaring stars, there is reason for hope. Both of these novellas are horror, unequivocally, and they deal with both the cosmic terror of a monstrous universe, and the smaller horror of monstrous societies, but both, in my reading, end with hope. Even in the face of flesh and teeth and huge inhuman hungers, the world does not end. Even in the face of pain and poverty and prejudice, the battered, broken heroes do not want it to. There is a delicate art to horror on the larger scale that does not lead to nihilism, but still preserves the balance of terror, and Khaw strikes a perfect note. I am taking notes on it. The power of hope prevailing, if only for a brief reprieve, after the touch of more than human darkness is worth all of our attention, and so is the strength of Khaw’s protagonists, especially in A Song for Quiet, to embrace hope after the smaller, sharper horrors of their lives.

I will make no secret here that this entry in the Stolen Ideas series is particularly special for me. I have discovered Cassandra Khaw only recently, and she has risen already to be among my very favorite authors. Her prose is spectacular and engaging and very much like what I imagine my own best work to be. Of all the authors mentioned and to-be-mentioned here, she is the one I most imagine a collaboration with, because there is a harmony between her words and my dreams that I have found with nothing else. Her work, and her delightful twitter microfictions are well worth everyone’s attention.

I, Also, am Eligible for Awards

Four of my stories were published this year. This is the first year that this has happened. This means that in 2018, I and my works will be eligible for some awards. I am kind of excited about this, everyone. I’m sure everyone who keeps up with authors has seen a bunch of these posts lately, but here’s what I’ve got:

Incursion was my first sale and my first publication, in the No Shit, There I Was anthology. It’s a mythos adjacent story built around an extremely annoying interrogation. If you like frustrated magical cop-equivalents and unreliable stoners, try it out. If you like fun SFF, try out the anthology. At 4,650 words, it’s eligible in the short story category for things like the Hugo and Nebula.

The House of Guan is a story about family and philosophy and the perils of equating financial success with virtue, packed with wuxia action and bad poetry. I wrote it after a week in which I watched both Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and you can tell. It appeared in the May issue of Phantaxis magazine. At 9,400 words, it's eligible in the Novelette category.

The Best Busker in the World is a little fairy story, by which I mean (and always mean) something inspired by the fairy myths of Ireland, England, Scotland, rather than a general European wonder-tale. It has music and longing and the ache of losing a magical place and not knowing how to get back. It appeared in episode 264 of Cast of Wonders, and it is worth a listen just for amazing job Katherine Inskip and Jeremy Carter did telling it. Their work has certainly elevated mine past anything I expected when I wrote it. At 1,700 words The Best Busker in the World is eligible in the short story category.

Salt Town is a story about a witch, and a town with salt walls to keep the monsters out, and the kind of monster that those walls can’t keep out. The idea began with my complete misunderstanding of what the Wieliczka salt mine cathedral looked like, and my imagination ran from there. Salt Town appears in the current issue of Body Parts magazine. At 4,200 words, it is also eligible in the short story category.

Because two of those stories (Incursion and The Best Busker in the World) were bought at a professional pay rate, 2018 will also be my first year of eligibility for the Campbell Award for new writers, so think of me if you liked my stories and are a Worldcon member.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 4: The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone

We’re through my fairy story touchstones now, so as NaNoWriMo winds down, let’s look more broadly at the stuff that is super exciting and worth your reading and thinking, and that I am trying to plunder as I write. Max Gladstone’s craft sequence is not the easiest to explain. He’s provided a help page on how to pitch the books. I’d say they were post-industrial fantasy with flavors of the new weird, and that the plots are legal/financial thrillers similar to John Grisham, if lawyers were necromancers, money was souls, and cops were terrible divine avatars. What they certainly are is smart, exciting, tightly-plotted, lushly-described, completely-original, and stunningly enjoyable fantasy books. You should read them. Go ahead, this blog will keep.

Okay, here’s what I think I can make off with before he gets back to the shop and calls the cops:

Important victories can’t be won in a fistfight. Fantasy can very often be said to have a violence problem. I’m far too steeped in the depiction of violence in fiction to have detached take on that big picture, but I certainly think fantasy has a problem with the idea that violence is a frequently useful and successful problem-solving method. Gladstone really, really doesn’t fall into that trap. Like real people in a real society, his characters often don’t like resorting to violence; they often face consequences for doing so; they always want things that can’t be gotten by punching or stabbing the people in their way. (while it may be possible in Gladstone’s world to stab the concept of the panopticon, that really doesn’t address the issue in a useful fashion.) That’s not to say that Gladstone’s books don’t have wonderful fights in them: they do, and he knows how to make a fight emotional and character driven, it’s just that the scenes of careful negotiation and fraught legal argument wind up being as compelling as the flash of swords and scent of magic. Gladstone’s books are a primer on how to build tension and emotion over office work and coffee.

Issues that seem dry and boring can be thrilling, and certainly are important to the heart of people’s lives. In rough order, the central conflicts of Gladstone’s books revolve around: zoning, utilities/watershed management, bankruptcy court, hostile takeover, offshore tax-havens, and living in the surveillance state. I read the watershed one in three days and hated every time I had to put it down. Gladstone makes what seem like dull minutia present and exciting and real. He shows the high stakes these things have for people’s lives. Magic just makes it a little faster, demonic invasion as the failure state instead of a major city slowly sinking into drought. There is a brilliance and power to these stories that center things which most fantasy world-building completely ignores, and Gladstone has a boundless compassion for the people caught in the uncaring wheels of government and business. He takes the legal and the erudite and makes it personal and potent.

Institutions and the individuals that make them up both matter terribly. The Craft Sequence spends a lot of time on institutions: law firms, church-governments, water-utility-governments, police forces, investment banks. Gladstone spends time on the construction of those institutions, their idiosyncrasies, obligations, ethics, and rules. He shows how the structure matters. I know it’s made me think much more carefully about the governments and businesses of my own settings. He shows with flair and tenderness the ways institutions hurt, and how they could be better. Both good and harm can come from the structures, but also from the individuals who direct and shape them. Even when the police are shadow-monsters possessed by the lobotomized revenant of a fallen god, the personalities of individual officers matter. The prejudices of a ruby-eyed skeleton CEO/king can’t help but infect the business he runs, even when they’re not written into any contract. I may have trouble fitting Gladstone’s brilliant balance between big ideas and personal stakes out the door, but I’m giving it a shot. It’s too nice to leave sitting here.

Knowledge is power, and not just for magical secrets. The idea of knowledge a power is pretty-much omnipresent in fiction with wizards: if the knowledge is how to shooting lightning with your mind, there’s no question it’s very practical and direct power. Gladstone goes farther than that, and shows how, even in a fantasy world, quite mundane knowledge is so often the key to success: details of legal procedure, the best shortcut through the alleyways, The history of a neighborhood, where the poets come to read and drink, game theory, risk management. It all matters, and even when magic permeates the world, everything else is still important. Gladstone doesn’t let the magic run away with story, or paper-over any of incredible complexity of human experience and society.

Late capitalism is devouring hell-scape which we must all fight to escape. Gladstone’s work is unapologetically allegorical for many of the worst parts of our globalized, finance-driven political and economic system, and he is not shy about pointing out how terrible all of it is: how unethical professors and debt can trap students in servitude; how the most basic necessities of life become commodities; how business uproots and displaces the poor and marginalized to make more room for the wealthy and privileged; how finance is stained by complicity with the criminals who abuse it, how the police serve the state and not the people. Gladstone’s characters do not shy from fighting these injustices, and his work inspires me each time to think more about what I can do in my personal life, and how I can better use my writing to aim at the issues of today, no matter how fantastical or distant the setting.

The Craft Sequence novels, in order of publication, are Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow, Four Roads Cross, and Ruin of Angels. They are, in any order, well worth your reading time.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 3: The Tufa Novels, by Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels (there are five out, I have read three, I believe the final total is to be six) are contemporary fantasy that places fairies in mountains of Tennessee, in the fictional Cloud County, and they are filled with humor, compassion, and the magic of music, traditional music of the British Isles and the Bluegrass it became in America. Anyone who has heard me talk about any of these things will know at once how much I love these books. I love the music especially. I love music, mostly folk music of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and also some bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music. I spend a lot of time listening to music, and while I cannot play, I love to think about it, and I love to read and to write about it. Books that center a complex and novel interpretation of fairy lore along with beautiful description of traditional music, are about as far into my wheelhouse as anything can get, so these are very much books for me. So, what am I stealing from them?

Fairies come in courts, or something like them, and the division is about internal politics, intra-fairy rivalries, and different relationships with humans. The idea of different fairy courts came up the Promethean Age, but it doesn’t loom as large in my idea of those books as it does for Bledsoe’s books. I think he gets to the heart of what I want to matter about the different kinds of fairy. It isn’t good fairies and bad fairies, that’s a very important start. If there are fairies that can be easily labelled good, I’m ready to get off the bus right there. The core division is between the fairies who leave us benevolently alone, and the one who take at will, the hungry ones; not a distinction between good and evil, but between foreign and monstrous. Bledsoe nails the dynamic, and his fairy flavors are distinct and interesting. The ‘good’ ones are content to keep to themselves and their traditions, built around strong families and a memory that stretches back over the Atlantic; the bad ones are specters of abuse, seducers who take one night of passion and leave you with an addiction you can never shake, the products and recapitulators of abusive families and toxic gender-politics. Bledsoe does pitch-perfect work making two kinds of fairies that are both part of the same whole, two sides of a coin with only a narrow edge between them.

Music is the magic, and it reaches as deep as the soul. Bledsoe’s fairies are all about music, not as a side element or one of many things, but at the center of all their magic and all that makes them different from the humans around them. I take the Tufa novels as my guide for writing about the uses and power of music and poetry: how a song can be made to fit a need, how music can command the heart and mind, how the stories songs tell are so important. It is possible that people who do not primarily listen to ballads won’t connect with this the way I do, but I’m writing a second novel this month that relies on the hope there are enough people who care about this to sustain a stable market.

There is power in rules and traditions, whether you follow them or break them. Old traditions and old memory define the Tufa community, with immortals and keepers of immortal memory to keep them alive. You can see the deep thought Bledsoe puts into the nature of these traditions as the series unfolds, and his characters begin to manipulate the old rules and break them for maximum strategic effect. I think old laws and traditions belong in a fairy story, but it’s equally important to remember that magical laws are more judicial than the laws of physics. They can be bent and twisted and broken at need.

There is a power in community, in gathering, in ritual, beyond the strength of the individuals who come together. Bledsoe’s fairies gather to make music and work magic and order their lives, and the gathering places and knots of people that fill them are places and patterns of power. This is an idea with no need to be confined to fairy stories, but Bledsoe’s books make me think about the strength and the importance of gathering together, especially for small communities, more strongly than any other books I can bring to mind. It is a lesson I can always do with remembering, as someone who grew up and lives in a big city, and pays more attention to intentional communities and intellectual ones in my private life. Bledsoe is an excellent teacher about communities that are a place filled by a people.

Morality and goodness matter and can prevail, even in the face of fairy weirdness and magic. Bledsoe’s books are full of good people who try to do the right thing, and sometimes it works, and that’s important. I have a tendency to complicate motives and fill the world with shades of grey, but it is always worth remembering that there are good people, and that people do good, and sometimes that’s what matters, and sometimes the fallen world doesn’t throw it back into their faces.

The Tufa Novels so far released are The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and Gather Her Round.

Also, as you read, look up The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which is a real painting that has a very important fictional life in these novels. In the interest of full disclosure, I first read about the painting in these books and thought it was made up until earlier this year, when I listened to the audiobook of View from the Cheap Seats and heard Neil Gaiman talking about it.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 2 “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, available in Gaiman’s third short story collection, Trigger Warning, is my single favorite piece of writing. It is true and hard and painful like peeling off a scab too soon. It is a story that feels written precisely for me in its tone, content, concept, and conclusion. I am still uncertain whether I prefer reading the words myself, or listening to Gaiman’s reading from the audiobook.

Gaiman is difficult for me, in the particular context of this series of articles (his books appear more than once in my list of things to write about). I love his work as much as anything I read, and I almost always want to achieve the same feeling for my readers that I get from Gaiman, but our styles are so different it is hard to know what to take. His prose is elegant and spare, and mine too ornamented to properly emulate him. Still, there is too much I love not to try and find something I can carry off in “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.”

Fairy magic cannot return what you have lost, no matter what they promise. This is a story about seeking a fairy cave filled with uncounted wealth, but it is really about loss and what comes after, and no magic can un-lose the people we miss most. Of course this idea is not original or unique to Gaiman’s story, but his juxtaposition of inescapable loss with a world where fairies are real and magic waits for those who seek is masterful and poignant.

There is a space between desire and need, and sorrow and hurt lies there. The cost of seeking what is desired but not needed is as close to an overarching theme of this story as I can articulate, and it is an endlessly important idea to remember for a fairy story. When there are bargains to be made with powers that can give you just what you ask for, the space between what you will ask for and what you should ask is vast, and the whole of your life may turn on the mistake. Gaiman writes the rueful understanding that you have made the wrong choice better than anyone.

There is a wonder in empty, wild places, and magic lives where we are not. Neil Gaiman makes me want to travel like no other author. This story will send me to Skye one day, just as “In Relig Oran” will send me to Iona when time and money allow. The beauty and the power of lonely black mountains where people come seldom fills the story from start to finish. Someday I will wring as much wonder from ordinary world as Neil Gaiman; for now, I get half as much from the fantastical as he does from rocks and clouds and rain on the slate ocean.

Old wives’ tales and folk wisdom remain for a reason. The people who live a day’s walk from the cave filled with fairy gold do not go in, do not take the riches that wait for the taking. They know the cost is more than the worth of the money. When magic is near, it leaves a memory, and the old wisdom of people who live at the edge of the commonplace and the fantastic is old for a reason. It lasts because it is needed.

Revenge is not righteous, nor does it liberate. Gaiman knows that killing is still evil when it feels righteous, that it leaves a scar even when we could not do otherwise. Even when we have assured ourselves to a nicety that all we do is justified, the killing stays, and it does not erase a bit of the pain that drove us to begin with.

I look back over this blog as I outlined and as I have written it, and it is full of platitudes and banalities, and I do not know how to say better what I want to mean. I do not fully understand what I am trying to take from “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.” I cannot say it clearly. I am trying to steal a twist of comfortable pain under my breast-bone, a warmth in my belly, a shiver in my bones. I am trying to recreate the feeling of almost tears that never flow, brought on not by a sadness but by a perfect weight of emotion, by the rightness of feeling just so as I hear the words pronounced.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is my favorite story, and I do not understand it, not enough to explain what is so perfect and so painful about it. Not enough to say why is has made a home in the heart of me and will not leave. All I can really say is that you should read it, if you love stories, or words, or beautiful things. Read it, and if you someday read something of mine and think you see the smallest echo of what you find in Gaiman’s story, tell me, and I will count it as a great success.

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 1: The Promethean Age Novels, by Elizabeth Bear

Here we begin a new series for this blog. The next few months will be about books I unreservedly love, authors who are doing things I find interesting and expanding and challenging, and, as the title suggests, books with ideas, styles, elegance of prose and tone, or other excellences that I am actively trying to incorporate into my own work. I intend this series to give some insight, for the very few who may be interested (hi dad), into my creative thought process, but more importantly to highlight exciting authors, many of them relatively current, and direct readers to the people who have already done the things I am trying to emulate, generally better than I can.

It is not particularly hyperbolic to say that these novels are some of the most important books in my life. They are the fairy books to which I compare all others in that niche, my gold standard for modern literary treatment of the old stories, and I take the ideas I will highlight in this blog as a good checklist of elements that make a fairy story whole for me. The books come in two pairs, one pair set in the modern day as fairy struggles to reclaim a place in the human imagination and deals with the consequences of doing so; the second a sort prequel, set in Elizabethan England and starring delightfully imagined Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. The ideas I want to talk about thread through all four novels. By the time you read this, I will have begun work on the second book of a planned trilogy that counts these books as its most direct inspiration. So, let’s get right into why these books are so excellent, and what ideas I am tearing out of them to spruce up the unruly nest of my own writing.

Fairy takes. That comes first and fundamental to a story about fairies and the immortal West. Fairyland and its fairies are hungry, and everything they give costs dear. There is always an exchange, but a good bargain is not one that costs less; it is one where the mortal has reckoned the cost beforehand and resolved that what they can get is worth the price. More often, the reward is gone in an instant, and the price lasts a lifetime: ruined limbs and a mind filled only with the memory for one night of dancing on the green while fairy music played, your freedom and your choice for the chance to claim a fairy birthright and live a little longer than mortal span. Sometimes, you do not make the choice; it is made for you, and you pay the price for a gift you never wanted. I think the idea of fairy as a hungry place is at the core of work that gives proper respect to the old myths that long preceded the fairy-dust and little wings of Victorian corruption.

Magic costs too, the getting and the using of it. There can be magic in a bloodline, as there is for the changeling main character of the first pair of novels, but birth to power is birth to obligation, perhaps even to destiny, and those chains bind tight and take their price in heartache. Another character is a witch, and that power comes quite literally from congress with the devil. Blood or gift, knowledge or skill, magic is not a wand and a smile in place of work. It is another bargain, with a price in time or pain or something harder. Using the power gained is just as expensive, or worse. Will and secret knowledge and knot in your hair may let you bind a fairy by its name and hold it at your service, but tying the knot changes you, and each one after does the same. Bear shows the power the first binding, and the weight of the choice to give it up, and she shows us a fairy queen with countless servants knotted into her hair, and how those knots breed fear and hate and isolation, and how they chain the queen’s choices down to a narrow course. Witchcraft is more expensive still, if one wishes to be rid of the Devil’s company, when each act of that power presses the memory of a blasphemous kiss against your skin. Anyone who has read any of my stories knows I take care to make my magic cost, and the Promethean Age is as good a treatise as any on this point.

Stories matter. An oft repeated refrain in the Promethean Age is that “all stories are true.” Bear’s fairies (and many other creatures of magic and myth) are shaped by the stories people tell or once told about them. Bear fills her novels with a wealth of literature and mythology beyond the core of fairy stories, and I adore all of it. (It’s not a focus here because I can’t steal most of it for my secondary-world novels.) I adore the intentional use of story by characters, and Bear is no less adept than Terry Pratchett at writing characters who understand the power of narrative and manipulate it to their own ends, nor at showing the way a story can trap someone and carrying them along like an irresistible flood. The war between fairy and the iron world is waged over centuries, and stories and poetry are the weapons that scar human minds to one side or the other. Prophecy and destiny are recurrent themes in the Promethean Age, and what is destiny but a story the protagonist cannot escape? I have prophecies to deal with in my new novel, and intentional use of stories. I hope I can achieve an echo of the power Bear takes from them in her work.

Music, all art really, is a magic and power all its own. Music and magic go together so tightly in fairy stories that light between the two is likely a weakness in the writer’s weave, and Bear has no chinks. She takes the idea more broadly, and in a wonderful direction. In the Elizabethan novels, the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Ben Johnson are grand sorceries, fighting back the plague and auguring the stability or fall of kings. When The Fairy Queen is published, the black hair of fairy queens turns red, and all queens are Elizabeth. I love poetry, and I love writing about music, and I adore any excuse to commit both things to the core of my narrative.

Fairy stories are really about people. Fairies are inhuman, immortal, magical, inscrutable, powerful creatures, and they are not the center of a good fairy story. Fairies need things; they trick, bind, aid, hunger, and demand of mortals. They are an inciting incident and a monster and an enticement, but the heart of a good fairy story is a human, a flawed, damaged mortal, or a collection of them. Bear delivers on this masterfully, masterfully enough that her work broke me out of deeply-carved youthful rut that kept my focus too much on the fairies, the their detriment and my stories’. I have made a choice to have no full fairies as points of view in my own fairy novels, to not offer a look inside their heads, and Bear’s brilliantly human characters are a large part of that decision. She reminds me every time I read that fairies are beautiful monsters, but the real weight comes from how they touch us, ordinary, human, vulnerable readers.

Here closes my first hectic, confused attempt at this kind of article. I hope I will have moved some of you to check out Elizabeth Bear’s writing, which is brilliant, and perhaps you’ll be intrigued by some of the same ideas that grabbed me by the throat and pulled. For those searching, the Promethean Age novels are Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, and Heaven and Earth. May you love them as much as I do.

Books that Shaped Me, Part 12: Neuromancer and Various Short Stories, By William Gibson

I had a distinct cyberpunk period (of reading and imagining), and it began with Neuromancer before expanding into Bruce Sterling and Lucuis Shepard and Neal Stephenson. For a sheltered child, Neuromancer, and cyberpunk in general, were something like drugs: raw, transgressive, mind expanding, filled with drugs. The cyberpunk aesthetic, especially early work like Gibson’s sprawl, seemed designed to shock, and I was appropriately shocked by the dirt, the smog, the pettiness of criminals and the godlike remove of the zaibatsus (huge corporations are all Japanese, or at least referred to that way, in early cyberpunk.) There was an almost sickening glorification of the violated and degraded in cyberpunk, the obsession with invasive body-modification, with the spiral of addiction, with the invigilating nature of poverty in the future. I had never met anything like it, and it was fascinating.

I came to cyberpunk from a slightly younger period steeped in classic science fiction, the technological optimism of the golden age, and cyberpunk was a splash of cold water collected in a rusted bucket from acid rain filtered through a slowly dying neon sign that advertised a virtual escape from the grind of life in a slum. The drastic transition from optimism to cynicism heightened, I think, the impression that Neuromancer made on me.

Another of the fascinating parts of Neuromancer that I now understand had a serious effect on me was the matter-of-factness of the transhumanism presented. I do not know that Gibson would have used the term then, but Neuromancer, and his short stories, were filled unproblematic human augmentation: implanted organs to prevent drug abuse, fingernail razors and sunglass eyeshades, an implanted holographic projection system. All of it is treated as unremarkable, exceptional for cost and elegance perhaps, but the concept of enhancing body and mind with implanted metal and silicon is not problematized. Stories that spend more time wondering about the nature of humanity and where it breaks down under augmentation have often landed poorly with me, perhaps in consequence of Neuromancer as an introduction.

There is a lot for a kid to not get in Neuromancer, when they haven’t read much similar fiction, or been to a regular school, or learned about the world of current events and recent history in anything approaching a systematic fashion. There are both a character and a backstory subplot that strongly evoke the Vietnam war, which I am not sure I had heard of when I first read Neuromancer. There are multiple cultures of recreational drug use, addiction, dependence and attendant troubles, which I certainly did not fully grasp at the time. There are space Rastafarians. I am certain I did not, when I first read Neuromancer, know what a Rastafarian was.

Despite some things going right over my head, Neuromancer punched hard and settled in. I read a lot of William Gibson after that. I do not remember the novels I read then very well (more about other novels, which I read later, in another blog.) Some of them were perhaps forgettable, others were likely brilliant, but at the time confusing, without the core of straightforward adventure that dragged me through the strangeness of Neuromancer. The short stories were different. Many of those dug in very hard. I still return to the first collection I bought, titled for the story I will begin with.

“Burning Chrome” is the quintessential Gibson, the quintessential cyberpunk short story. When I first read it, it was an action story, full of thrilling crime, colorfully sinister supliers, culminating a heist pulled off with flair and skill and luck to punish the guilty and reward the virtuously criminal. I loved the vivid strangeness of the matrix with its geometries of colored light and shifting identities. Now on my return, the flavor is more melancholy. The success is only part of a larger failure, the victory wins no prize, and the damage of poverty against ambition is done long before stolen wealth can soften the blow.

That, I think is a fair example of my reading of William Gibson then and now. When I was young, it was a grit and the flash that excited me, the thrill of heists and narrow escapes, or failed ones. On returning, the stories are an education in melancholy, in the failure of technology to improve mankind’s morality, society, or soul. Cyberpunk was a shock, and I mainlined the stuff for years. I still remember the smell of smog and ozone, the flash of chrome, and the glow of a sky like a television tuned to a dead channel.

And with that, dear reader, we come to the end of this series on books and authors that shaped my young reading, at a nice round dozen. Next up, since I’ve finally figured out how to write about books in a way I enjoy, and have reasonable hope others may enjoy, is a series on the books and authors whose ideas I am currently trying to steal for my own work. So, read about the hot new (and not particularly new) stuff that’s got me the most excited to read and emulate.