Sunday, 31 August 2014

Weekly roundup

What with having guests over for a week, I did even less writing and no writing related work. Not only is it stressing me out but I'm in full-blown mental energy deficit mode. It's got me literally sleeping 11 hours a night and finding it less than enough.

  • It's been a week of unexpected things as well, like my computer dying. We actually managed to resurrect it for a brief afterlife which I hope will last till December...
  • On the blogging front, I said what I thought about Doctor Who and Brett Bailey's Exhibit B. It felt good to get that out of my system given that quite a few cultural products make me feel like those two things respectively. I finished a few posts but I do this to play with ideas and I've not had much time for play.
  • The good thing is I booked my train ticket to my parents' house for next Friday. I will be house-sitting and writing. Nothing but writing. I can't wait. I'm going to be blogging about the process, I hope.
  • I may go to Lindisfarne for a few days soon, if I can borrow the car and find sufficiently inexpensive accommodation. I'm calling it research... but really, it's a need for inspiration. Late September is probably a good time to go up there. It may well be bleak, but it shouldn't be bitter.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Confronting colonialism: why Brett Bailey's Human Zoo exhibition is a bad idea

Exhibit B - The Human Zoo by artist Brett Bailey consists of a series of caged black actors dressed up as exhibits of the human zoos which toured Europe and America in the 19th-early 20th centuries. It's already been shown in various places including Edinburgh and is due to arrive at the Barbican in London in late September. 

The Barbican says the exhibition is intended to 'confront[s] colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today' and aims to 'empower and educate rather than exploit'. This post is about why I don't think the exhibit can work as stated and more generally, why it's a bad idea.

The Human Zoo is more re-enactment than representation

We all know re-enactment societies, right? Adults dressing up a medieval knights and fighting tournaments, that sort of thing. But would you re-enact the Holocaust? A witch-burning? Do you think it would be acceptable to form a 'Deep South Slave Plantation Re-enactment Society?' With racially profiled roles? That's essentially what we're being invited to participate in here, with 'us', the spectators, paying to occupy the role of colonial audience while paid actors play the role of our exploited victims.

The visual nature of the exibit and the stage directions to the actors limit the experience to pure display

I think it is perfectly acceptable to study and make culture about even the worst atrocities of history, but I expect such work to steer clear of voyeurism and acknowledge the humanity of those involved. This becomes possible when exploited people are given voices, agencies, backstories... It's difficult to convey those things in a purely visual medium but Exhibit B - The Human Zoo isn't even trying. Perhaps if the actors could interact freely with the audience, tell the stories and feelings of their characters, confront spectators about their viewing, we would be having the kind of experience promised by the Barbican's publicity. But I gather that goes against the stage directions.

The role of 'spectator' is divorced from the original colonial context and constitutes an act of neo-colonialism

While the actors re-enact the role of specific victims of colonialism, the spectators aren't particularly invited to think of themselves as spectators of the same period. It's probably just as well because we're inherently anachronistic. Assuming the exhibition is directed at London in general, quite a large proportion of the potential audience is directly descended from the colonised. I'm not surprised to find many of them actively rejecting the role of colonial exploiters.

And what about the rest of us? I'm might be descended from people who formed the target audience for the original human zoos, but nevertheless...  I'm not a barely literate mill girl who's rarely seen anyone from more than a few miles outside her birth community. I'm a highly educated member of an incredibly globalised middle class. I can imagine why my great-grandmother might have the curiosity to attend a human zoo and the ignorance not to realise what was wrong with the idea. Perhaps I would get something out of a sensitively made representation of the interaction between people like her and people like the victims of human zoos. What I can't imagine is why I would pay 20 quid to go and gawp at a racially profiled subset of my fellow citizens dressed up as supremely exploited historical figures. In fact, I have no intention at all of doing so. Far from being educational and empowering I see it as a mutually degrading experience with no up side.

Why I think this is external to issues of censorship in the arts

As you've probably realised by now, there is a protest against this exhibition and I support it. I hope the Barbican, artist and actors reconsider lending themselves to it. It's true that contemporary art has traditionally been granted the widest latitude to include material many of us find offensive or disgusting and many people feel that is an important role. Lots could be said about the rights or wrongs of art censorship but in this case I have reasons for thinking that debate is irrelevant.

Because of the nature of contemporary art and the particular status of this artwork as a re-enactment, protesting, boycotting or preventing its exhibition isn't censorship, it's a style of participation which would mean that in London Exhibit B - The Human Zoo played out in a particular way. As I said above, we've been offered the role of neo-colonialist spectators but unlike the actors we haven't been given any guidance on how to perform or what meanings to derive from the experience. Given the person I am, I can't imagine appearing in this re-enactment as anything other than a protester and boy-cotter. That's a role which strikes me as potentially educational, empowering and a suitable confrontation with colonialism.

I urge everyone else to consider doing the same. Apart from this post, my further participation is going to be hampered by absence from London, but if the exhibition goes ahead, I urge everyone, protesters, spectators and actors alike to participate by undermining it in the (peaceful) anti-colonialist method of your choice. Peacefully (and artistically) busting the actors out of there and taking them down the pub instead would have been my first choice. petition against the exhibition 
Thanks to Yemisi Ilesanmi for alerting me to this exhibition

Women warriors I grew up with

Philis de la Charce from the public
park in my home town, via Wikimedia

If you grew up in France in the 70s, you grew up with Joan of Arc. Actually, every single image of my first history textbook is imprinted on my mind, but especially the ones in which Joan is hearing voices, meeting the young king dressed in her suit of armor and getting burned at the stake. What's also imprinted on my mind is every kid in the class turning round to stare at me when the teacher said the English burned Joan at the stake. I kind of knew I was supposed to be connected with the English in some way but I didn't really have much consciousness of being anything other than French at the time. I can vouch for the effectiveness of all that 'our ancestors the Gauls' stuff! Joan was my heroine, just like she was everyone else's.

Now I realise I know little more about her than I did then. I learned the Victorian British had a bit of a cult of her for a while though I don't really know why. I heard her story didn't really happen the way they told us at school. I discovered that as French women warriors go, she's hardly unique. My home town of Grenoble sports a nice statue to Philis de la Charce (French link), a woman warrior whose semi-legendary exploits took place in the late 17th Century. Meanwhile, I guess I missed out on Boudica.

Vincentius Bellovacensis Speculum historiale fol 340v détail.jpg
Martha and the dragon via Wikimedia Commons.


Martha was my real heroine when I was growing up. Yes, that's Martha, sister of Mary, from the New Testament, the one who was leading an active life. According to the legends of southern France, Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus escaped Roman pursuit in their homeland and came to the area of France around the Rhone delta. You can still visit a cave in which Mary supposedly retreated to continue being contemplative.

Martha also stayed true to character. She went to the town of Tarascon, close to where I grew up. The people there were being terrorised by a monster known as the Tarasque. Rather than slaying it a la St George, Martha tamed it and led it back to the town, impressing everyone so much they dropped their previous gods and converted to Christianity on the spot. Or so the story goes... Maybe Martha isn't quite a warrior but when I was six of seven I admired her utterly anyway.

Because of the context I grew up in, both the women warriors of my childhood were French and Christian even though I was neither at the time (I became French later). What about yours?

See also:
Girl geniuses I grew up with 
One Who Walks with the Stars, a Lakota woman warrior 
Review of Lucy, the film about a woman who unlocks the full potential of her brain
We have always reclaimed our stories on Anfenwick.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Lucy (film review)

Lucy (2014 film) poster.jpg
"Lucy (2014 film) poster"
by via Wikipedia.
It's very obvious that Luc Besson draws his influences from Franco-Belgian comic strips and Japanese manga/anime. Just yesterday afternoon, I was watching an anime which used the 'person morphing into weird black tubes' trope. The question is, can Besson's totally fantastical plots stand the transition to real people and settings?

It helps that his actors are larger than life. Their personalities and presence exceeded the weight of the story. Scarlett Johanssen looked as cool as a cucumber lifting baddies to the ceiling with a wave of her hand. I have a real soft spot for Amr Waked as the French cop. Morgan Freeman also has a tendency to turn up in films I like. In this case, he sounded as if he couldn't quite believe what he was saying, which was a good call on his part. If I could have reduced my brain capacity by about 90% maybe I would have been impressed by the 'premise' of Lucy. As it was, it contained so much random pseudo-scientific bullshit, it's hard to single out just one strand, and poor old Freeman bore the weight of imparting it to us. Lucy herself just had the acid trip of a lifetime. It must be hard to display genius beyond the reach of ordinary human understanding, such that we ordinary humans can grasp it. Yeah...

Was there anything buried here for the skeptical magician to get her teeth into? Well, it is quite impressive how we humans have such an intense awareness of the quantity and shape of our ignorance. In a way, it's as interesting as animal self-consciousness, but less well researched as far as I know. Can a dolphin discern the existence of unexplored land masses and wonder what they're like? Can a symbol using chimpanzee note our use of symbols it doesn't understand? Does it realise that another chimpanzee knows things it doesn't? I have no idea, but we can do all those things and more. No wonder we have a perpetual sense of limitation when we see beyond our limits all the time. And no wonder we're able to imagine the limits being lifted.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Technological disaster strikes

Excuses for not writing #5 (this time it's a really big one)

OK, that's it. My laptop is breathing its last. It stays on as long as I don't touch it, fails to charge the battery, has lost all wifi capability. Some of this may be fixable by a shop, but it would take a while and I have to consider the fact that the software is archaic, I've nearly worn holes through the keys and it's been over-heating badly enough to burn me. I was hoping it would last until Christmas when I would replace it between books (with help from my well-wishers) but it's not to be. Now I just need a solution of some kind before my big writing session in September. I think I may also need to cry for a bit, because that old laptop has been round the world with me. Losing it is like getting an amputation.


Okay, mourning session over. Now, what should I do? Should I spend the money I'd carefully saved for an editor... Or the money I set aside for research on the next book? The money I was hoping to use to go halves with my daughter in a nice big artist-ready desktop that actually meets her needs better than mine? Yeah, I know, decisions...

I don't really want to do any of those things so I need to look at solutions using technology I've got. Namely, the iPad Mini on which I've painstakingly typed this. Could it really work?

  • Dropbox? - check (free)
  • Storyist? - £6.99 GBP - I'm really sorry Scrivener, it's been great working with you but what can I do? Now I have Storyist and Dropbox talking to each other, but I need to export my Scrivener file as an rtf, before the laptop really truly dies. I have a feeling it's going to take me a while to get used to Storyist but I have no choice.
  • Keyboard for iPad mini - £69.95 (gulp) At least I like the way it works. Actually I like it a lot. It was a lot easier to finish this post anyway.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Wet Sequin Party - Notting Hill 2014

Subtitled: excuse for not writing #473 (pneumonia)

The good thing about yesterday's weather is that we could actually move around and see everything we wanted at the Notting Hill Carnival pretty easily. The bad thing is that we got very cold and wet. The bands were excellent, the food and drink was fantastic and my American friend was suitably entertained by our quaint traditions e.g. drinking copious amounts of alcohol in the streets, right under the eyes of a load of coppers. Apparently, they're not allowed to do that over there. Also, I've come to the conclusion that the traditionally British black umbrella doesn't go well with sequins and feathers. We should start a new tradition of special carnival umbrellas, because let's face it, pouring rain on an August bank holiday Monday isn't exactly a unique event. Then, if by some strange chance it doesn't rain, we can pretend they were parasols all along.

How to exorcise a ghost

Please note: this post assumes you have already found a ghost.

The purpose of exorcising a ghost is to get rid of it. Finished, gone, no more ghost. Magic for Skeptics firmly believes that proving the non-existence of said ghost is the most suitable technique for use by skeptics. However, before we get started, you may be interested in hearing how the superstitious go about things.
Hammersmith Ghost.PNG
"Hammersmith Ghost". Via Wikipedia.

Actually, it's common for ghosts to be treated with great compassion and offers of help. Many traditions believe the ghost is only seeking closure on unfinished business. Perhaps it suffered an injustice or committed one, or was improperly buried. If descendants are responsible for its ongoing well-being in death they may have failed to meet its needs.

Alternatively, something may have 'gone wrong' in the transition between life and death. The ghost refuses to let go of life, has become trapped, or it is lost or excluded from the the proper places of the dead. In all these cases, ghost-believers will first attempt to fix the problem, dealing with the ghost as they would a living human.

One form of ghost belief that's hard to approach in this way is the idea that a ghost is not a person but a kind of imprint or recording, usually caused by a trauma. In this case, there might be no moral issues involved in erasing it, but doing so is a tricky technical problem because we have no understanding of or access to the presumed recording medium.

Standard exorcism procedures require access to a higher spiritual power, in whose name and authority the ghost is banished from a place, using words, holy water or other substances or symbols. Similar techniques are used to bless a space in the name of the higher power, preventing the ghost from re-entering.


When it comes to skeptical exorcism, ghosts still come in a variety of types:

The UFP (Unidentified Floating Person)

The UFP doesn't have to be shaped like a person, it just has to convince its observers of its ghostly nature. In reality, they've misinterpreted some other phenomenon or, in a few cases, become the victim of a hoax. Nothing is more satisfying than uncovering a good solid hoax, just like in Scooby Doo. Unfortunately, the skeptical ghostbuster more often finds him or herself oiling creaking doors, pruning over-enthusiastic trees and explaining that Jennifer isn't actually a ghost, she was just wearing a white dress and feeling unwell.

Maybe you think I'm exaggerating about that last one? Take another look at Mister Scary of Hammersmith, London, illustrated at the top of the post. He'd been scaring the locals for a while, but early in 1804 vigilante Francis Smith killed an innocent plasterer, Thomas Milkwood, having mistaken him for the ghost. I don't suppose Milkwood was wearing robes and waving his arms above his head as he struggled home from work, but the fact that he was caked in plaster dust was enough for his murderer.

Tracking down UFPs isn't always easy as picking up poor Milkwood's corpse. It relies on things like reproduceability, recordability, and miscellaneous detective work. And not all ghosts are unidentified physical phenomena. Some of them are definitely in the 'machine'.

Sounds and Shadows

Let's take a quick break to think about what's implied by the belief that ghosts are in the world. We would need to assume the existence of what we'll loosely call a 'soul', separable from the physical nature of human beings. In most cases, we'd require the existence of a kind of 'spiritual ether' in which complex psychic information could manifest and transmit itself to the senses or minds of some or all humans. Worst of all, we'd need an explanation of how these things can be matters of common experience AND resistant to systematic observation and investigation. Even worse than that, we'd need to explain why no reliable model of the universe requires or even allows for such a thing. There are no gaps left big enough for sounds and shadows. Absence of proof isn't absolute proof of absence, although an absence of suitable gaps comes pretty close. Either way, it tends to turn us towards a 'mind of the beholder' hypothesis.
Brown lady.jpg
"Brown lady" from Wikipedia.

Phantom Loved Ones and Unseen Presences

There is rich ghost-hunting ground in the believer's mind, although it must be admitted that attempts to demonstrate or reproduce ghost-like experiences in the mind have also failed so far. At least in this field we know much lies beyond our current grasp.

I suspect ghosts manifest because our minds contain models of people. People we know, fictional characters, sometimes spirits and deities. Sometimes, the models take over and run themselves, especially when they concern people we know well or think about a lot. Most people have experienced vivid dreams involving people they know well. We're also familiar with the extreme difficulty we face in 'ending' our model of another person after bereavement. Like a phantom limb, our model of the loved person continues reacting, experiencing and remembering in an overpowering and uncontrollable way. These kinds of experiences quite naturally transfer into a belief in spiritual existences - that's what they feel like.

We also very certainly have 'modes' of being which we use to regulate our own behaviour based on whether we're alone, with intimates, acquaintances or strangers, whether we expect to be under close, friendly or hostile observation. Most of us have also experienced the false activation of one of those modes. We can't reliably sense the presence of a hidden observer, but fiction constantly stimulates our awareness of the possibility. Lots of it depends on our vicarious identification with someone we know to be the victim of voyeurism. Like the phantom loved one, it's an emotionally intense experience and no wonder it's sometimes mis-activated.

I suspect all that's required to bring a ghost to life is to create and/or run one of these modes or models on the basis of a very slight stimulus or even spontaneously. Once a place or event starts triggering a ghost-experience, it will very likely establish itself for that person and spread to others very easily through a process of 'social validation'.

There are probably all kinds of ways to exorcise this kind of ghost but the question for skeptics is the same as that faced by the superstitious: should you do so? In the sense of researching and popularizing explanations of ghost phenomena, certainly yes, but what if we could prevent the occurrence through therapy of one kind or another? Maybe the answer is that the phenomenon is part of being human and should be left alone until or unless it proves overly disruptive or traumatizing to the person who experiences it.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Doctor for Who?

I watched Doctor Who last night for the first time in... decades? I gave up on the series ages ago, after they tried to go all flash to reel us in. In fact I've practically given up on television. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a bit of flash when it's part of the way a real person decides to express themselves in the world. I just hate plastic flash, the kind that's created by marketing divisions to try to persuade us they're IT. Any fool can tell the difference.

I was expecting Peter Capaldi to be an improvement over recent installments of the Doctor. His face has personality. I haven't quite got to grips with the rest of him yet but when he gets over his disorientation he might settle down into something watchable. Maybe.

Sadly, my well-tuned sense of the shenanigans of marketing departments is blaring like a bull-horn and telling me he's a Doctor made for the American market. He hits 'Britishness' buttons all over the place in a way never seen on any actual British person, but which seems to correspond to how many Americans see the British. And I mean come on, the first episode was Downton Abbey with a steampunk edge! You can just smell what they're doing. The consequence is that it's inevitably going to be content- and personality-free vanilla candy-floss with no teeth. Nothing else will span the trans-Atlantic cultural divide. And it is looking that way already. The character's opened and shut their mouths and noise came out.

I can't blame the BBC for aiming at a big market but it's been worrying me for some time that what we're doing in film and television has been taken over by a trend towards marketing 'Britishness' abroad. When a culture become 'museummified' in this way, it's basically dead on the branch. A postcard for tourists... with love from the marketing department of UK Incorporated! I might give the new Doctor a chance but I have serious misgivings. It's quite probable that I'll invest my time and energy elsewhere.

Grammar fiends: I'm aware of the fact that the title of this post should be 'A Doctor for Whom?'

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Weekly roundup

This week I...
  • Moved most of my Loncon 3 posts from Magic for Skeptics to Anfenwick and added a couple of new ones over there. I still have two or three more things to write, then I'm going to lighten up I promise, because it's all a bit intense.
  • Discovered that maybe people come to Magic for Skeptics thinking they're going to learn to use dreamcatchers. Oh well, it's a big wide world out there. Coming up next week: How to exorcise a ghost, Women warriors I grew up with and Magical objects and morality in ancient Britain. And maybe Kate Bush...
  • Had fun moving in project-related stuff at Anfenwick. Still have to finish.
  • Learned to use Twitter. I know... Anyway, okay, what I did is registered with a Twitter account then bribed my teenage daughter to register as well so I would have someone to tweet at. I didn't really learn to use Twitter yet.
  • Tried to explain to my family that if we wanted a 'less expensive' and exciting Icelandic/American adventure built around Sasquan next year, it wasn't too early to start planning.
  • Weeded the garden and made a chocolate tart. Refrained from trying to write in a four-day window between Loncon and the arrival of house guests.

Weekly roundup

This week I...
  • Moved most of my Loncon 3 posts from Magic for Skeptics to Anfenwick and added a couple of new ones over there. I still have two or three more things to write, then I'm going to lighten up I promise, because it's all a bit intense.
  • Discovered that maybe people come to Magic for Skeptics thinking they're going to learn to use dreamcatchers. Oh well, it's a big wide world out there. Coming up next week: How to exorcise a ghost, Women warriors I grew up with and Magical objects and morality in ancient Britain. And maybe Kate Bush...
  • Had fun moving in project-related stuff at Anfenwick. Still have to finish.
  • Learned to use Twitter. I know... Anyway, okay, what I did is registered with a Twitter account then bribed my teenage daughter to register as well so I would have someone to tweet at. I didn't really learn to use Twitter yet.
  • Tried to explain to my family that if we wanted a 'less expensive' and exciting Icelandic/American adventure built around Sasquan next year, it wasn't too early to start planning.
  • Weeded the garden and made a chocolate tart. Refrained from trying to write in a four-day window between Loncon and the arrival of house guests.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss: not so much a review as an investigation into its sources

Content warning for cat lovers: Don't read this. Just don't. You won't enjoy it.

I just finished reading Cat Out Of Hell by Lynne Truss and I liked it... well, I liked it OK, to be perfectly honest. It's not very long, it is quite interesting, and although I kept thinking I knew where it was going, by the time it got there I could never remember whether I was right or not...

But that's not the point. The point is that I instinctively sensed a nugget of historical data buried in the story. Not wanting to include any spoilers, I'll only say there are references to British occultism which I thought must come from somewhere. I Googled various names and drew a blank. Then... (I should point out I was following the same procedure as the characters in the book)... so then, I Googled 'aleister crowley cats' to see what would happen. Google suggested I might be looking for 'aleister crowley cat torture' and it was right. For those who don't know, Aleister Crowley was one of Britain's most renowned occultists. In his 'The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography', (I didn't make that up), he shares this little story from his misspent youth, c.1890.
I must premise that I have always being exceptionally tenderhearted, except to tyrants, for whom I think no tortures bad enough. In particular, I am uniformly kind to animals; no question of cruelty or sadism arises in the incident which I am about to narrate.

I had been told 'A cat has nine lives.' I deduced it must be practically impossible to kill a cat. As usual, I became full of ambition to perform the feat. (Observe that I took my information unquestioningly au pied de la lettre.) Perhaps through some analogy with the story of Hercules and the hydra, I got it into my head that the nine lives of the cat must be taken more or less simultaneously. I therefore caught a cat, and having administered a large dose of arsenic I chloroformed it, hanged it above the gas jet, stabbed it, cut its throat, smashed its skull and, when it had been pretty thoroughly burnt, drowned it and threw it out of the window that the fall might remove the ninth life. In fact, the operation was successful; I had killed the cat. I remember that all the time I was genuinely sorry for the animal; I simply forced myself to carry out the experiment in the name of science.
And there it is, my dear Watsons - Lynne Truss's original source material for her short novel, I'm almost certain of it. It's... I don't even know what to say about it... but at least I still have my hand in.

Girl Geniuses I grew up with.

Thanks to Loncon 3, I belatedly discovered Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius. She's Phil and Kaya Foglio's comic strip heroine and I'm loving her so far. She inspired me to post about the girl geniuses I grew up with. Mine are French and Japanese-living-in-Belgium respectively, because that's the language zone I grew up in. Hmm... only two of them. Are there any more out there?


Fantomette is a real super-girl. She doesn't have magical powers as such, and she's not especially a scientist but there's isn't much she doesn't know and can't do. She sails ships, sword-fights and comes top in everything at school. She outwits bandits, uncovers crimes and solves mysteries which have confused all of France. When I was eight, I didn't understand how unnatural her abilities were. I remember making little checklists of the things I would need to learn if I was going to be like her. I even did some of them...

Fantomette's 52 adventures were written by Georges Chaulet between 1961 and 2011 for children in the 7-11 age bracket. That's about the age I was when I was spending my pocket money on them back in the '70s. They don't seem to have ever been translated, but hey, all you French learners out there - this is very accessible stuff!


Yoko is more of a woman genius because while Fantomette is in her early teens, Yoko is in her twenties. She's an electronics engineer AND supremely clever, brave, competent, compassionate, etc, etc. She's Japanese, based in Belgium and travels the world, visits other planets and even goes back into the past.

Yoko is a comic series created in 1970 by Roger Leloup and still running, with 26 books to date. I would say they're suitable for kids from the age of 8-9 upwards but I didn't discover them until I was in my teens. I couldn't afford to buy them until I reached adulthood then I started acquiring them with my first pay check and still keep up my collection. I'm utterly mystified that only a few of them have been translated into English and that those don't seem to be selling like hot cakes. Meanwhile, everyone goes around saying stuff like 'Oh, there's no science-oriented heroines for girls!'

If you've got a favorite girl genius of any date, language or nationality, please let me know.

See also:
Women warriors I grew up with
Review of Lucy, the film about a woman who unlocks the full potential of her brain
We have always reclaimed our stories on Anfenwick.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The ownership of stories in indigenous Australian culture

This post is based on Gillian Polack's talk, Three Indigenous Australian Writers at Loncon3. The writers in question were Ambelin Kwaymullina, Melissa Lucashenko and Yaritji Green (links to their Goodreads pages). The talk raised some of the usual issues about non-western 'speculative fiction': the tendency to fall outside genre boundaries for various reasons and the inevitable politicization of people's cultures and identities.

What I really want to talk about is the systematized way cultural property works in indigenous Australian culture in contrast with the 'openness' of multiculturalism in Britain, and what I see as a more Americanized discourse on cultural appropriation. It's complicated, so I'm going to attempt it over several posts.

The first challenge is to communicate what's actually involved in indigenous Australian cultural property. I liked Yaritji Green's explanation in this discussion on The World SF Blog (now demised). I really recommend reading the whole thing, but I'm copying the bulk of Yaritji's contribution in case it disappears:
I have written this doorstopper of a fantasy based on dreaming entities from the Yankunytjatjara side of the family. I wrote the bulk of it while studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at Flinders University. The degree I did allowed me to choose the topics I wrote my assignments on, and through my studies I came across this thing called copyright: a strange and wonderful thing which is good for the western world but does not fully protect the creative and intellectual rights of Indigenous Australians. We are the world’s oldest surviving culture yet we often find ourselves on the back foot playing catch up to legislation and policies that often were not explained (if explained at all) until too late and that does not address or cover Indigenous copyright or ownership principles.
So back to this copyright thing. Indigenous copyright is conceived as a heritage that is passed down; you learn the stories of the land and its inhabitants so that you can pass it down to the next generation. Our stories also have borders; we can own a story up to a certain landmark and then the neighbouring community owns the story from that landmark onwards. Some stories or characters can be shared between nations. However with the westernised concept of copyright, ownership generally goes to one person/corporation. Then once the copyright holder dies copyright remains in place for 50 years then it becomes public domain: then anyone can use it.
So back to my doorstopper, it is sitting there, waiting. It sits there wondering if it might ever get out into the world. Sure, I could make some quick money by getting it published. Use the ‘exotic other’ of my Indigenous culture, my ‘exotic other’ Indigenous name, my western knowledge and my western networks to get this story out there and milk it for all its worth. But at what cost? I’m not prepared to sell out my community’s heritage. With Australian copyright laws the way they are, the cost is too great; it takes too much from my people.
As far as how the culture I’m living in now affects my work, I am careful about what I write. I speak to my Elders. I share what I am going to write about. I had this idea, I thought was wonderful, so I shared the basics with family and other Indigenous writers but after a discussion it turned out that some parts of my idea would conflict with culture. So I thought, okay, I can’t do that but I can still do this, this and this, and my story will still have strength without selling out. Everything is about respect. Respect for culture.  Respect for others. Respect for myself. If I can’t respect my culture then I have no respect for myself. It may be a different story if I wrote outside of Speculative Fiction. I wouldn’t have to be so careful – well other than, you know, avoiding being libellous. I want to write the stories I want to read, stories my community might want to read.
Adding to what Yaritji said from what I've learned in the field of art history, I think it may help to understand that it's not just the right to tell stories (or paint them) which is owned by specific communities, individuals, genders, age-sets and so on, but the right to hear them. In the case of painting, the issue is not just seeing a painted story, but seeing and understanding it without having the right to do so. So, a 'man's painting' may be viewed by western women who are not expected to understand it, but if a woman of the relevant community views it, even accidentally, the penalty may be severe. In Australia exhibitions of Aboriginal art often carry warnings and have separate viewing spaces to prevent inadvertent viewing.

Some people, especially westerners I suspect, might like to understand the approximate nature of these secrets they are not to understand. I'm reading between lines quite a bit here, but I think it's very much tied to the specifics of an area of land. If you can recognize the individual landscape elements referred to and interpret the stories which go with them there may be a problem. It's as if knowing the story for a given waterhole signals ownership of that waterhole. (If you're reading this and know better please offer corrections or expansions on this!)

To return to written stories, Yaritji Green explained indigenous ownership by comparing it to western systems of copyright, intellectual property, etc. I think it also helps if we add a comparison to non-literary story cultures in other parts of the world. In Europe, we have a long-standing tradition of archetypal stories which have been told in some form throughout Europe, Eurasia, perhaps even the whole of the Old World (and its diasporas). We have lots of regional and individual variations and adaptations of those stories but only specific published instances of them can be owned. The archetypes or story structures are not property at all. They aren't used to confirm ownership of anything or signal any kind of group membership. They're used to give form to ideas, hopes and dreams. Sometimes they can be quite political, sometimes they're escapist. Often, as oral tellings, they've been associated with people who had no connection with any kind of ownership (especially land ownership) since so long ago it might as well be for ever. It's well worth paying attention to this non-elite aspect of the deep-rooted differences between western and non-western cultures, especially since non-westerners usually forget (or don't know) about it in their analyses.

Back to painting and the differences between current notions of 'cultural appropriation' and traditional Aboriginal ownership... We might imagine the term cultural appropriation applying to someone like me, a European, deciding to paint my own bit of European landscape in Aboriginal style. This would certainly be problematic if I commercialized my work as 'Aboriginal' because a) it would offend a mainly western notion of authenticity and b) it could divert income and attention from the Aboriginal artists who depend on it. It might also seem a surprising choice to Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike. But it isn't an act which transgresses traditional indigenous Australian notions of cultural property per se, because (except exceptions) indigenous Australians don't claim ownership of pieces of European land, the particular stories attached to them or particular designs for telling their stories.

Somewhere near the other end of the scale, we have the openness of multiculturalism in Britain which I'll hopefully get round to writing about in a day or two.

How to use a dreamcatcher

I'm going to be using a dreamcatcher in my book so I need research! Not too much depth - it only has a walk-on part - so the Googlenet should do very well. I just need to make sure the way I introduce it isn't inconsistent with historical reality or culturally problematic.


Everyone associates them with American Indians, but more specifically...?

The answer is that it's difficult to find out where they originated because a) they were ephemeral objects and few old ones survive; b) the traditions surrounding them were originally oral and therefore hard to date.

Possibly they were developed by the Ojibwe people and spread to other Indian and non-Indians groups quite recently (60s?). As they spread, oral traditions developed around them and 'back-dated' them within each group's consciousness. On the other hand, I've found one reference to dream-catcher like objects in pre-colonial Central American murals (but no reference to where these murals may be seen). I've seen Ojibwe dreamcatchers of the early 20th century which resembled spiderwebs rather than today's net shapes, and read one article which claimed the 'spiderweb' version was a modern variant. American Indian groups have diverse and sometimes mutually incompatible stories about their origins and mechanisms. Non-Indian groups recognize them as a 'dream-technology' of often unspecified Indian origin, and vary as to how they think they work.


The likeliest explanation is that they were a simple article made mostly for babies and small children. The web filtered out bad dreams while the feathers acted as a visual stimulus, much as mobiles do in contemporary western culture. Some traditions say the feathers guide good dreams to the sleeper, others that the dreamcatcher must face the rising sun so trapped nightmares can be exterminated by its light. One nice story says that as the Ojibwe tribe expanded, Spider Woman could no longer take care of all the children so mothers and grandmothers made substitute webs to hang above the cradles.


This is something we writers need to pay quite a lot of attention to, so bear with me.

Dreamcatchers now include some truly astonishing works of art as well as a lot of kitsch American-Indianobilia. Although the original dreamcatcher wasn't a particularly sacred or proprietorial article, the commercialisation and New Age spiritualisation of American Indian culture upsets some people. The accessibility of the dreamcatcher means it's often used to introduce children of all cultures to American Indian culture. As a side-effect it sometimes starts functioning as a symbol of 'Everything I Know About Indians' rather than a 'Thing For Catching Dreams'. It's a heavy burden for a baby-soothing device to bear! Besides, lots of Indians have a whole lot of issues with the content of 'Everything I Know About Indians'.

Responses to this type of situation are very varied and contextual (examples here, here, here). There are conflicting needs and values at work: a) the need of Indian groups to subsist in difficult circumstances, such that it's annoying to see others profit from Indian artistic traditions; b) the desire to retain control of cultural meanings which might become swamped by non-Indian interpretations AND the need to control how Indians are perceived; but conversely c) the desire to forge positive relationships with other groups by sharing some parts of Indian culture and understanding. There's even the simple question of whether a person's cultural values lean towards fusion or authenticity.

Non-Indian children who've been exposed to the craft early enough also effectively have it 'bequeathed' to them more than they 'appropriate' it and may grow up to create artistic, commercialised or spiritualised versions on their own terms. Not to mention the New Agers, I've seen dreamcatchers which rely on very Europeanised traditions of lace-making and crochet for their webs... 


The million-dollar question...!

My daughter was offered one of the more kitsch dreamcatchers when she was still young enough to suffer from nightly bad dreams. I told her it 'might be able to stop them', hoping for some placebo effect. Perhaps it would reassure her, like a security blanket or a teddy bear? Not an unreasonable hope but unfortunately nothing would do for my kid but the nightmare-slaying power of direct maternal intervention! Your mileage may vary...

More importantly for me at the moment, will it work in my book?

Pretty well, on the whole. I'm starting from dreamcatchers in their contemporary context so everything about their origin and current distribution works for me. I wish I could integrate something about their role as a female-centered piece of parental technology, but I'm not sure I can fit it in. As for upsetting people, I'm not using the problematic New Age or 'Everything I Know About Indian' tropes at all. What I am doing is using the dreamcatcher in a culturally fluid way, partially 're-inventing' it for the purposes of a story. I don't expect to keep everyone happy while doing that, but what seemed important to me was to avoid an object whose meanings are highly charged (for example, one which can only be used by certain people, in certain ways, or has complex and specific meanings). My story is also structured in such as way that it 'quotes its sources' by which I mean that the Indian origin of dreamcatchers and the cultural process of 're-invention' are built in to  the narrative.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Found in translation: aliens in the Aeneid

I met a Dutch guy in a queue at Loncon 3. We discovered we were both translators (among other things) so things looked fair set for a nice professional bonding experience. I told him what I was working on and he looked blank, then he told me what he'd just finished. It came with a nice business card and many allusions to space travel and alien technology. I'd been thinking a lot about translation throughout this Worldcon so I was very curious to see which piece of Sci-Fi he was translating for the Dutch. The ensuing conversation went like this:

Me: So... what language did you translate this from?
He: Latin.
Me: Latin?!!! (reading the business card) 'Aeneis liber sextus'. Wait a minute... is this what we call the Aeneid?
He: Yes.
Me: But there were no aliens in the Aeneid?
He: Ah but what people don't realise is (insert complicated Ancient Aliens theorising).
Me: So basically, you've rewritten the Aeneid?
He: No, I translated it.
Me: But... isn't it a bit hard when you're translating, to introduce words about space technology and aliens when the original talks about sailing ships and gladiators?
He: Ah, well, I'm convinced Virgil himself didn't know what he was talking about.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: Virgil's Aeneid as it would have been if Virgil had known what he was talking about. It turns all my carefully worked out professional translating ethics on their head but the fact is, the Aeneid is well inside the public domain. While I might want to insist on calling this particular version a rewrite, anyone can do anything they want with it.

Should you want to find out what Dirk Bontes did with it in Dutch, look up Aeneis Liber Sextus. Disclaimer: my new acquaintance said people were finding his version 'complicated' an assessment which I'm in no position to comment on.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Gender transgression, magic and warfare in Norse society

We're seem to be having a binge on Norse mythology in our household. After seeing the Thor movies, we couldn't resist picking up Joanne Harris' The Gospel of Loki and after that I had to get something less well-known: Midnight and Moonshine by Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter.

In the process I've learned more about a topic I touched on a few days ago: gender in traditional Norse culture. In that post, I said I thought Norse cultures might be fairly inflexible in their approach to gender. Completely by accident, I discovered the ancient Norse term of abuse for effeminate men: ergi. Ergi is what one man called another when he wanted to challenge him to a duel. More specifically, it implied homosexuality in the (allegedly) feminine passive role but not the active one and also, to my surprise, the practice of magic. Loki is the ultimate ergi, untrustworthy, canny, given to sexual liaisons with both males and females and practically magic incarnate.

Faroe stamp 428 The Prophet.jpg
"Faroe stamp 428 The Prophet".
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons.
Magic was unmanly, and while female völva were respected, male practitioners were regarded with suspicion and persecuted. Völva were often older women who had already raised families before taking on the role. They were skilled in prophecy, performed sacrifices and seductions, went into trances using drugs, music and dance. They performed war magic, either at home or on the field of battle. They used staffs or wands, symbolically linked to the distaff used in weaving which was another female province, and also to the phallus. In the hands of the völva, spells could also be woven during the acts of spinning and weaving themselves.

Norse sorcery was eventually persecuted into extinction by the Roman Catholic church. The skeptic in me notes that while women's role as sorceress involved doing nothing dramatically (except exerting power and influencing events due to be respect accorded them), the intervention of Christianity left them without much of a role at all (except spinning and weaving clothes and sheets of course). Unfortunately, the conjoined aspects of this pattern of cultural takeover are quite common.

Norse legends and mythology also feature women taking on the more masculine role of warrior. They don't seem to be disrespected but there's debate over the extent to which such women existed historically. There is certainly far more archaeological evidence for völva than shieldmaidens. Reading between the lines I suspect women often fought when their communities were under attack and a handful may have joined war parties as active fighting members (as they always have, everywhere). Norse groups might have male or female leaders, but it looks like those people often found it effective to stick to traditional gender roles. Male leaders were warriors, ideally with a magically competent spouse, female leaders were sorceresses, ideally with a son or other subordinate male in the warrior role.

You might also be interested in:

Thor and Gender
We have Always Reclaimed our Stories, about Kameron Hurley's Hugo Award winning essay. It links to a bunch of other posts on gender and women warriors.
One Who Walks with the Stars, a Lakota woman warrior

Best of Loncon

The best thing about it obviously, is being with people who share strong emotional experiences around the same things I do. I'm still processing some of it, but my little heads up goes to the writers on the Race and British SF panel and somehow manage to press all my buttons. All they did was mention, quite casually really, the immigrant experience trope and also the importance of landscape in British fantasy. Those are very big buttons for me.

When people meet me in the UK, it's not immediately obvious that I've had an immigrant experience. I look and sound like I belong here, but errr... it didn't quite happen like that. Not at all. I arrived in late childhood, completely disorientated and very, very homesick. It was only through British landscape-oriented fantasies, Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Cooper, that I was able to start building a connection with my... well, even now, I have a hard time uttering the words 'new home'. I'm not sure if it would be an exaggeration to say those books saved my life, but they certainly helped form my identity (in difficult circumstances). So, yes, science-fiction and fantasy are more than just fun to a whole lot of us for a whole lot of reasons. That might be why I'm actually enjoying the heady world of fandom more than anything else at this convention. It's all done by people who care a lot.

On Saturday, I went to a panel talk on Race and British SF with Amal El-Mohtar, Tajinder Hayer, Stephanie Saulter, Russell Smith and Dev Agarwal which I'll probably write more on in a bit.

'Worst' of Loncon

Well, not the worst really, but the thing that made me most squeamish was the news that I should be on Twitter. Well, not just that I should be on Twitter but that I should make sure to always be the Bland Brand version of Anne Fenwick when I get there.

Actually, that's not what they said. What they said is 'Don't get into fights'. Basically. And it's astonishing how much that made me squeamish because I don't approve of getting into fights. For myself, I mean. I make a point of not doing it. I revile the use of abuse. I ignore personal criticisms and refrain from making them. But I don't make a point of being uncontroversial. Or even unacerbic, unsarcastic and uncynical at times. If it happens to come down to a straight contest between the excellent advice to 'be yourself' and 'be honest' and the pragmatic advice to 'be marketable' - and there is definitely a tension between the two - I choose the former. It's anfenwick, not anodine...

I attended a panel talk on Social Media and New Authors with Wesley Chu, Julie Crisp, Max Gladstone, Emma Newman and Danie Ware, whose advice I am sure was very excellent.

We Have Always Reclaimed Our Stories

I'm glad Kameron Hurley won two Hugo Awards last night: Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work for her essay We Have Always Fought! Oh, and Dribble of Ink won Best Fanzine, most likely in part for publishing it. It was obviously an essay which corresponded to what lots of people needed to read and, in some cases, argue with.

What I felt when I first read it was sad, especially when I got to this bit:
When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.
“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”
He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”

Twenty years ago, when I was about the age Kameron Hurley is now, I learned what she learned in that passage. Feminist historians showed me the recovered history of female warriors, explaining how it had come as a personal epiphany to them some twenty years earlier, when they recovered the stories of military women which had already been recovered twenty years before that. Yes, there is a loop here...

As I got older and read more, I realized it's a long loop, with warrior women stories being recovered, generation after generation, by adults who had grown up with rather less exciting and empowering images of women. The recovered stories never quite break the mainstream, the next generation of children grows up without them until they reach adulthood and recover them in their turn... sometimes. Kameron Hurley's essay felt like this generation's re-iteration of that ongoing process, never quite breaking through into deeper change. Only maybe this time it will...

Related posts:

Girl geniuses I grew up with 
Women warriors I grew up with 
One Who Walks with the Stars, a Lakota woman warrior
Review of Lucy, the film about a woman who unlocks the full potential of her brain

Hugo Awards at Loncon 3

I'm feeling a bit smug because in the category I'm most familiar with - novel writing - I picked the winners correctly: Sofia Samatar with A Stranger in Olondria won the John W. Campbell new writers award and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice got Best Novel in the Hugo Award. To be perfectly honest I didn't actually vote because I didn't manage to get through the reading list in time. I made those picks on the basis of which books were at the top of it.

I didn't do quite as well at picking winners in the film and comics categories since I have a preference for Pacific Rim and Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius! The actual winners were Gravity and Time by Randall Munroe. Fandom is a brave new world to me, though actually it's been one of the most fun aspects of the convention. Kameron Hurley took two awards in that general area, not surprisingly after she set the SF/Fantasy world alight with her We Have Always Fought essay. Even I had heard of that one! I even think it merits a quick post of its own.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

How to distract our public officials from the important task of fiddling their expense accounts/re-election funds

Just give them something else to do. In the UK, for example, the Freedom of Information Act means they have to tell us what they're up to if we ask them using the right form. Even if what we want to know is whether they're suitably prepared to protect us from dragon attack.

Interestingly, a couple of the more esoteric questions might well come from skeptics trying to make sure governments are not wasting our money. Of the top ten silliest reported in the Guardian, one asked:
How many times has the council paid for the services of an exorcist, psychic or religious healer? Were the services performed on an adult, child, pet or building?
And another:
How many requests were made to council-run historic public-access buildings (eg museums) requesting to bring a team of "ghost investigators" into the building?
Never trust 'em, that's what I say! Where have they hidden the unicorns? Anyway, as the article points out, these 'silly' questions shouldn't be used to put down the FOI act. It does an important job and hopefully, all the councils have to do with most of the quoted requests is write 'None' on a piece of paper.

At least on the other side of the pond, Americans can usually rest assured that their politicians do spend some of their paid working hours on prayers, invocations and other 'spiritual' exercises. Maybe I'm being over-skeptical myself, but I dread to think what systematic requests about other esoteric uses of tax-payers money might turn up. But the White House's We The People petitioning system, in which the administration commits to answering petitions above a certain number of signatures, opens up special possibilities for distracting officials while revealing that they do have some limits. For example, the White House was famously forced to explain to the citizens of the United States why they could not have a Death Star program. The rather long answer, crafted by Paul Shawcross (no doubt a public employee) begins:
The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:
  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
Sadly, the White House has received a plentiful bounty of silly petitions, some unpleasant, and many revealing a painful ignorance of the constitution. Other than that, there might be a trend to prefer space-based silliness in the US and gothic-fantasy-based silliness in the UK. Citizens of both nations seem inspired by dystopic Hollywood scenarios, paranoia and conspiracies. It would be quite interesting to do a study.

Meanwhile, in the autocracies of the world, smug dictators must be revelling in the humiliation of their democratic colleagues who are forced to bow to the interests and humours of the public...    (cue evil cackling)

Obstacles to diversity in SF/Fantasy

More on Loncon 3... Did I mention that 'diversity in speculative fiction' was a specific theme of this convention? Hence all these posts which need a home and probably shouldn't really be here. Anyway, I have a couple of observations on obstacles to diversity which came up across a range of talks...


 It's pretty much part of the definition of genre fiction that it will conform to a set of expectations in terms of content, but also form. When authors start to push against either of those boundaries, their work tends to get categorised outside the genre, perhaps as magical realism, or just literary fiction. Many western authors find themselves in this situation, but it becomes particularly likely for authors from other traditions - not surprising since the content and forms of SF/Fantasy genre are a tradition of western origin. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, at least not for the authors themselves. Literary fiction is taken more seriously in some circles and may reach a wider audience.

The downside is that it complicates the inclusion of such works in SF/Fantasy centered events in ways that are currently bothering some readers and authors. Works shelved as 'literary' aren't likely to receive genre-based awards if they aren't perceived as exemplars of the genre. They and their authors don't get included in conventions and discussions around the genre, even if some* readers like myself don't really distinguish between fantasy and magical realism in their reading and thinking. This is quite odd in that we merrily group SF and Fantasy as if they just naturally went together. At Loncon 3 I've been quietly navigating around all the SF stuff because it isn't really my thing. Then, when I go to discussions on the stuff that is my thing, we're talking a lot about 'magical realist' authors without having them directly included in the proceedings

* allowing for the fact that some readers are hardcore genre fanatics.


I'm very frustrated about this obstacle right now because of the tantalizing existence of books I want to read and can't. The English-speaking world does very, very badly at facilitating the flow of translations compared to other cultures. However, other cultures mainly translate from English, so they have their own problems of access to diverse literatures. Whole swathes of literature are essentially out of our reach, though often not from the groups we usually think of first when we talk about diversity and inclusiveness.

Africa, North America, large swathes of Oceania and sections of Europe and Asia are quite well represented by authors who write in English (although also by authors who don't). South and Central America have largely dropped off the map, along with very considerable areas of Europe and Asia. The exceptions are authors who make it really big in their native language areas and perhaps Japan, since demand for Japanese work has been high enough to generate frequent translation.

What I'm very much hoping is that the rise of low-investment publishing and small independent publishing houses could be used to address this problem in the near future. I really don't think it's due to a lack of willing and capable translators.

10 animals I'd most like to have as a familiar

Enough with the cats already! Apart from anything else, I'm deadly allergic to the little beasts. Because I need to chill out, here are 10 vastly preferable animals with whom I'm personally acquainted.

1. Aardvarks

I think I mentioned my affection for aardvarks already, and since I'm not sure I can really explain it, I have nothing more to say. Except that I suspect I'm not alone. Hey, maybe there is even an aardvark fanciers forum out there! 

Porc formiguer.JPG
2. Bees

The hive mind and its workings are about as close to alien as you can just about get on this planet and yet, honeybee colonies are a lifeform we humans have learned to interact with and even depend on. Fingers crossed, that this alliance may be preserved. The honeybee's many wild and solitary cousins are also supremely cool.

Apis mellifera flying.jpg
3. Dragons

But since I haven't found one yet, all the reptiles, birds, dinosaurs and carefully imagined illustrations and books which give us a glimpse into the essence of the pure and unadulterable Platonic dragon.

Ivan Bilibin 065.jpg
4. Goat/camel/llama according to location

It seems like everywhere on the planet has one of these hard-boiled, independent types of ruminant. Their expressions and attitudes are every bit as arrogant as a cat's but for some reason they exude this low-brow aura. Perhaps it's because they're condescendingly useful instead of sneeringly decorative. They're like the old curmudgeon in the pub who won't give you the time of day but you have to suck up to him or her anyway because they know everything and can Get Things Done.
07. Camel Profile, near Silverton, NSW, 07.07.2007.jpg
5. Horseshoe crabs

I think it's because they're so beautifully smooth and unified on top and have so many damn bits underneath. I mean, ten eyes!!  Ten photo-receptive organs anyway. Practically an Intelligent Designer's parts catalogue.

Limulus polyphemus.jpg
6. Jellyfish

Put me down in front of a tank of jellyfish and I will be mesmerized to the spot, like a toddler in front of a TV screen. Or if you don't have a tank of jellyfish, put me down in front of a wildlife documentary about jellyfish. That way, I promise I'll be no trouble at all while you do the washing up, laundry, and cleaning...

Jelly cc11.jpg

7. Kea

The clowns of New Zealand's mountains and forests, who are nothing but trouble to everyone! I think they are the incarnation of some kind of trickster god. Personally I like them, though I have seen Kiwis (the people, not the bird) become extremely irritated in their presence (and it's not like they irritate easily, on the whole...)

Kea on rock while snowing.jpg

8. Qilin 

Pronounced something like 'chileen' or, if you like, why not 'chillin'. Qilin's are an Asian chimera somewhat related to: deer, goats&camels,etc., tigers, dragons, giraffes and unicorns. They turn up from time to time in fantasy literature such as the book I'm writing. They are extremely cool but very complicated.


9. Salamanders

Back when I lived in the French mountains, I always thought there was something deeply centering about watching seeing these black and yellow jewels amble across a path on wet summer days. Witches and other magic practitioners have had to make up all sorts of guff about salamanders to justify their existence as familiars, when in fact they do next to nothing.


10. Tasmanian devils

The sad thing is that the wild population of tasmanian devils can be pretty much counted as lost, due to that contagious tumour disease thingy. That's what they told me when I was in Tasmania. Apparently they hope to let the disease run its course and eventually re-introduce devil populations who were bred in captivity. Devils really do fight like devils but the little ones are awfully cute when they attach themselves to the clothing of their human carers with their teeth.

Sarcophilus harrisii taranna.jpg

Image attribution: all the pictures are from Wikipedia, usually the top image for each animal.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Representing social breakdown in SF versus Fantasy

I got another interesting pairing of talks at Loncon 3 on Thursday. The first was on the representation of refugees in science-fiction, the second was called Vampires and National Identity. They don't seem obviously connected but it turned out the second talk offered solutions to the problems raised by the first.

The panel talk on refugees featured writers with direct personal experience of refugees in the real world. It digressed quite a lot on real refugee experiences which was certainly useful, and the general agreement was that not much was going to change in future worlds. Different transport technologies and perhaps different planets... Here, as elsewhere in the conference, we heard about the difficulties of representing a situation in writing while holding on to another story thread. As Lauren Beukes said, if she'd tried to represent the real nature of a refugee hostel, "it would have taken over the whole book".

In the fantasy field, it's easier to use the paranormal as allegory and metaphor for social and psychological situations. The speakers discussed the idea that vampires, who occupy the border between living and dead, can be used as a metaphor for social collapse and individual dehumanisation, and as a xenophobic othering mechanism by host populations. It's easy to imagine a similar narrative mechanism with zombies where the differences between vampires and zombies map relatively easily onto issues of socio-economic class and refugee agency which got discussed in the SF talk.

This is when I realized that the most creative suggestions from the SF talk used technology to achieve a similar 'undead' state. The writers on the panel proposed life on a time-share basis, with refugees forced into artificial sleep for blocks of time, or alternatively, in retreat from the physical world altogether into the virtual realms of the 'uploaded'. Either approach seemed to express the 'dehumanised' status of refugees who are reduced to an incomplete life, very often in terms of basic needs, almost always in terms of cultural identity and social participation.

All very interesting, though a talk I intended on Friday offered some completely different options, which I'll discuss in the next post.

The talks I attended were Refugees Have More to Worry About Than Revenge with Jean Johnson, Dev Agarwal, Erin Hunter, Lauren Beukes and Sean McLachlan and Vampires and Identity with Nin Harris and Deborah Christie. Nin Harris based her talk on the works of Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Diversity in SF/Fantasy and the cognitive overload

I'm at Loncon 3 right now, mostly attending talks of professional interest, plus the odd, film, play, etc. Here, I'm going to talk about the first two panels I attended together because they had many points in common.

The first was about the representation of non-traditional families in SF/fantasy, the second about how we represent non-human sexualities, for example vulcans or vampires (but not gods, despite the long history of that particular trope). In a way, the first talk had a wider field to choose from. There was a focus on gay relationships and polyamoury but more traditional alternative families were mentioned: single parent, recombined, adopted... some of these alternative families are in lack of representation at the moment, others have been tropes since time immemorial. Some of this may be due to social prejudice but because of the way the talks developed, I think it's worth considering the narrative reasons a bit harder.

It's a trope to start a story with a family that's just been split apart by death (or divorce in the modern world), partly because it allows the author to begin at a moment when the characters enter a new situation (or at least radically changed conditions), are already under stress and, lets face it, in a position to elicit reader's sympathy. It's a trope to start a story with an orphan in search of family, for the same reasons and also because it allows the author to cut the backstory to a minimum. Here, more than anywhere else, the protagonist starts with a cleanish slate and a usually a desperate need.

At the talks I heard today, people were keen to read and write about non-traditional families and sexualities but they still saw it as a challenge to be overcome. They mentioned the usual concerns about acceptability to a wide readership and commercial pressures from publishers and editors and a whole lot of other issues. But there were some concerns to do with the craft of writing which transcended both talks.

It's in the nature of SF/Fantasy that the story is often about a quest, a political upheaval, or other adventure. This is what these authors/readers wanted, but with characters that 'just happened to be' polyamorous werewolves (or whatever). Their narrative problem was that as soon as they strayed too far from the common ground of so-called neutrality, they needed to fill their readers in on the details of their protagonist's situation. If they weren't actually entering info-dump land, they were at least introducing undesirable amounts of distraction from the main plotline.

To minimise the narrative impact of the character's alternative lifestyle and also because they desire this for our future, many authors let ther characters live in worlds in which their lifestyles attracted no particular attention. The alternative: dealing with all the conflicts, the juggling of priorities, the closeting and passing and asserting of rights would distract from their desired storyline even more.On the other hand, so would dealing with the structures and institutions a supportive society might be expected to build around accepted lifestyles.

I think writers would be probably be best served by addressing the issue of the lifestyle they want to introduce head on as an aspect of world-building, plotting and character design. It is actually bad writing to have a character who 'just happens to be..' It isn't done with 'neutral' characters either - they just require less leg work. The character's situation, their society, and the people in their lives need to be built into the main storyline, as antagonists or allies, obstacles, opportunities, motivations, providers of stakes and sanctions...

I introduced the idea of cognitive overload into the title of this post, as something which describes the way this overload of 'stuff that must be dealt with' applies to real as well as fictional people. It's hard to write someone living a minority lifestyle in a not altogether supportive society while getting everyone to focus primarily on their pursuit of some other goal. In real life, the same burden falls on real people and gets in the way of their goals too. It's a real social problem and if we can't overcome it even in fiction then we should be doing a lot more to acknowledge its impact on the lives of real people.

The talks I attended were: Reimagining Families with Jed Hartman, David Levine, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Laura Lam, Cherry Potts and The Domestication of Spock with Jude Roberts, Nick Hubble, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Justina Roberts.

Martians have motives too - review of War of the Worlds: Goliath

War of the Worlds- Goliath.jpg
"War of the Worlds- Goliath" by
Screen capture self-taken.Licensed
under Fair use via Wikipedia.
War of the Worlds: Goliath is a 2012 Malaysian anime directed by Joe Pearson, and shown at Loncon 3 on Thursday.

It almost started well. On the eve of WW1, the Martians are about to mount a fresh attack on Earth. The film pays a surprising amount of attention to some of the minutiae of historical national rivalries around the world. The message is that humans should unite around the Martian threat. With that going on, it's odd that it seems to regard early 20th century America as a post-racial society, and its line on gender is random but definitively anachronistic. Well alright, and what about these Martians anyway? Green blobs of pure, unadulterated antagonism, nothing more. I was obliged to ask my neighbour to remind me if they'd had a reason for attacking the Earth, way back in the original.

Hmm... also when I saw those little triplanes dog-fighting flying saucers and winning, I fully realized the power of the original story in representing an attack on a society hopelessly outclassed on the technological front, then saving it with an unexpected intervention from a natural force. Goliath's Earthlings win by fire-power. Lots and lots of extremely unbelievable fire-power. Beautifully drawn, unbelievable fire-power.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Thor and gender

I got dragged into watching Thor: the Dark World last night. Suffice it to say that even 12-year olds see this film mostly as an opportunity for cynical hilarity. And anyone watching it could be forgiven for supposing that Thor was originally the Norse god of testosterone, with all that thunder-god business as mere decoration.

So I'm kind of curious about Marvels idea of making Thor a woman. Their narrative for how this will happen is simple and perfectly justifiable: they treat Thor as a title instead of a given name. As such, the role can be embodied by anyone worthy enough to hold the 'Thor Hammer', as implied (sort of) by the hammer's inscription. Apart from vaguely wondering why they didn't pick an already female mythological character to work on, whether they're going to make the new Thor look like Armoured Barbie, and whether she's going to use nubile male characters to signal her power and status as Marvel's male characters continue to use women (and if not, how will she?) there is no problem with this narrative ploy.

In Scandinavian mythology, Thor's gender was far from fluid, despite the notorious occasion when he most unwillingly dresses as a bride to get his hammer back from Thrymr, king of the jotnar. Loki, on the other hand has very fluid gender, sometimes appearing as an old woman, or giving birth to the horse Sleipnir which 'he' conceived in the form of a mare. The bride stunt was his idea! But then Loki is a trickster god, who blurs other categories as well: truth and fasehood, good and evil... He's supremely powerful, but untrustworthy, necessary but unlikeable, just too damn complex for simple, straightforward gods like Thor (though I think he's great!). At any rate the original Scandinavian myths reveal the insecurities of their makers when it came to blurred gender roles. Rather like some of their modern day successors.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Search For Simon (film review)

30 years ago, David's younger brother Simon disappeared without a trace and has never been seen since. David is still looking, and the search for Simon has become his life.

I loved this film, from the moment the tank rolls across a muddy British field to the moment American alien conspiracist and conman alienfromArcturus gets pulled by... but that would be telling.

And then I met Martin Gooch, writer, director and player of the lead role, coming out of the cinema (wow!) and he asked me the billion-dollar question: 'So, what did you like about it?' I fumbled with a few adjectives, but really... I'm going to try to do better here.

You could watch a pan-dimensional space romp and maybe enjoy it, but it would be as empty as the calories in the popcorn. The Search For Simon has all these different superimposed and interacting worlds and what makes them special is the fact that they're here, right now, in conflict with each other and people have to live with them. There's the narrative David invented for his brother and believes in, the one he's suppressed and forgotten, the one Eloise is building around him, the fantasy game worlds which are meant to distract him from the first one, the manufactured world of conmen who exploit the gullible and the other one, in which there may really be something out there. It's really very clever and complicated in a completely watchable way. I'm left at the end with all kinds of ideas about the potentially healing, potentially destructive power of the stories we build around ourselves.

When I was watching the film, I completely believed in the story of what happened to Simon, and especially to David. After a while, my skepticism switched on and I started wondering: could that really happen or is it just one of the narratives we tend to accept? I'll have to try to find out at some point, but not here because it would count as a spoiler.

The other world that comes into the film is, of course, the setting. Whenever I see a film that hasn't been made in Hollywood these days, it's like stepping out of the holo-deck into fresh air. I think it must be something to do with lighting or the way the shots are set up, but it looks real. I like that. Also, the special effects are in the best tradition of British special-effectology. I sincerely hope no actual cows were injured in the making of this movie.

For some subliminal reason, The Search For Simon makes me think of aardvarks. They're one of my favorite animals anyway, and like this film, they're both odd and prosaic, endearing and fascinating, and you can't really tell which bit of them belongs. Since everyone else sticks pictures of cats all over the place, here is a picture of an aardvark.

Porc formiguer.JPG
"Porc formiguer" by MontageMan is the author of the original image - Cropped from File:Porcs formiguers (Orycteropus afer).jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.