Locus Magazine announced the winners of the 2017 Locus Awards during the Locus Awards Weekend in Seattle, WA, with Connie Willis serving as MC for the awards ceremony.
The list of nominees and winners is below. Winners for each category appear in bold.
SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
Winner: Death’s End, Cixin Liu (Tor; Head of Zeus)
Company Town, Madeline Ashby (Tor)
The Medusa Chronicles, Stephen Baxter & Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz; Saga)
Take Back the Sky, Greg Bear (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Visitor, C.J. Cherryh (DAW)
Babylon’s Ashes, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
After Atlas, Emma Newman (Roc)
Central Station, Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon)
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (Doubleday; Fleet)
Last Year, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Winner: All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
Summerlong, Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)
City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway)
The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay (NAL; Viking Canada; Hodder & Stoughton)
The Wall of Storms, Ken Liu (Saga; Head of Zeus)
The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville (Del Rey; Picador)
The Winged Histories, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
The Nightmare Stacks, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK)
Necessity, Jo Walton (Tor)
Winner: The Fireman, Joe Hill (Morrow)
The Brotherhood of the Wheel, R.S. Belcher (Tor)
Fellside, M.R. Carey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones (Morrow)
The Fisherman, John Langan (Word Horde)
Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Dunne)
HEX, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor; Hodder & Stoughton)
The Family Plot, Cherie Priest (Tor)
Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff (Harper)
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay (Morrow)
YOUNG ADULT BOOK
Winner: Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz; Orbit US ’17)
Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo (Holt)
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin)
Lois Lane: Double Down, Gwenda Bond (Switch)
Truthwitch, Susan Dennard (Tor Teen; Tor UK)
Poisoned Blade, Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)
Burning Midnight, Will McIntosh (Delacorte; Macmillan)
Goldenhand, Garth Nix (Harper; Allen & Unwin; Hot Key)
This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab (Titan; Greenwillow)
The Evil Wizard Smallbone, Delia Sherman (Candlewick)
Winner: Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
The Reader, Traci Chee (Putnam)
Waypoint Kangaroo, Curtis Chen (Dunne)
The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi (St. Martin’s)
The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig (Greenwillow; Hot Key)
Roses and Rot, Kat Howard (Saga)
Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine (Tor)
Infomocracy, Malka Older (Tor.com Publishing)
Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)
Vigil, Angela Slatter (Jo Fletcher)
Winner: Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Lost Child of Lychford, Paul Cornell (Tor.com Publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
Hammers on Bone, Cassandra Khaw (Tor.com Publishing)
The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
This Census-taker, China Miéville (Del Rey; Picador)
The Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds (NewCon)
The Dispatcher, John Scalzi (Audible; Subterranean 2017)
Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling (Tachyon)
A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)
Winner: “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” Alyssa Wong (Uncanny 5-6/16)
‘‘The Art of Space Travel,” Nina Allan (Tor.com 7/27/16)
“Pearl,” Aliette de Bodard (The Starlit Wood)
“Red as Blood and White as Bone,” Theodora Goss (Tor.com 5/4/16)
“Foxfire, Foxfire,” Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/03/16)
“The Visitor from Taured,” Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s 9/16)
“Spinning Silver,” Naomi Novik (The Starlit Wood)
“Those Shadows Laugh,” Geoff Ryman (F&SF 9-10/16)
“The Future is Blue,” Catherynne M. Valente (Drowned Worlds)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary, Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing)
Winner: “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
“The Story of Kao Yu,” Peter S. Beagle (Tor.com 12/7/16)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” Brooke Bolander (Uncanny 11-12/16)
“A Salvaging of Ghosts,” Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/17/16)
“The City Born Great,” N.K. Jemisin (Tor.com 9/28/16)
“Seven Birthdays”, Ken Liu (Bridging Infinity)
“Afrofuturist 419,” Nnedi Okorafor (Clarkesworld 11/16)
“Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee,” Alastair Reynolds (Bridging Infinity)
“That Game We Played During the War,” Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com 3/16/16)
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” Alyssa Wong (Tor.com 3/02/16)
Winner: The Big Book of Science Fiction, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, eds. (Vintage)
Children of Lovecraft, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse)
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. (St. Martin’s Griffin; Robinson as The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 29)
Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, Mikki Kendall & Chesya Burke, eds. (Crossed Genres)
Tremontaine, Ellen Kushner, ed. (Serial Box; Saga ’17)
Invisible Planets, Ken Liu, ed. (Tor; Head of Zeus)
The Starlit Wood, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga)
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
Bridging Infinity, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
Drowned Worlds, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
Winner: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu (Saga; Head of Zeus)
Sharp Ends, Joe Abercrombie (Orbit US; Gollancz)
Hwarhath Stories: Twelve Transgressive Tales by Aliens, Eleanor Arnason (Aqueduct)
A Natural History of Hell, Jeffrey Ford (Small Beer)
The Complete Orsinia, Ursula K. Le Guin (Library of America)
The Found and the Lost, Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga)
The Best of Ian McDonald, Ian McDonald (PS)
Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia A. McKillip (Tachyon)
Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds, Alastair Reynolds (Subterranean; Gollancz)
Not So Much, Said the Cat, Michael Swanwick (Tachyon)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Winner: Ellen Datlow
John Joseph Adams
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas
Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Winner: Julie Dillon
Kinuko Y. Craft
Winner: The Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley (Tor)
Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981-1990, Mike Ashley (Liverpool University)
Octavia E. Butler, Gerry Canavan (University of Illinois Press)
Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, André M. Carrington (University of Minnesota Press)
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin (Liveright)
The View From the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline)
Time Travel: A History, James Gleick (Pantheon)
Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books 2000-2016, Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer)
The History of Science Fiction: Second Edition, Adam Roberts (Palgrave Macmillan)
Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Fairwood)
Winner: Charles Vess, Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie (Faerie Magazine)
Yoshitaka Amano: Illustrations, Yoshitaka Amano (VIZ Media)
Kinuko Y. Craft, Beauty and the Beast, Mahlon F. Craft (Harper)
Kinuko Y. Craft, Myth & Magic: An Enchanted Fantasy Coloring Book (Amber Lotus)
Spectrum 23: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, John Fleskes, ed. (Flesk)
Stephanie Law, Descants & Cadences: The Art of Stephanie Law (Shadowscapes)
Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie (Abrams)
Spaceships: An Illustrated History of the Real and the Imagined, Ron Miller (Smithsonian/Elephant Book Company)
The Art of the Film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Dermot Power, ed. (Harper Design; HarperCollins UK)
Shaun Tan, The Singing Bones: Inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales (Allen & Unwin 2015; Arthur A. Levine; Walker UK)
The Locus Awards are chosen by a survey of readers in an open online poll that runs from February 1 to April 15.
Via Tom Coates, who writes:
I went to Moss Landing, as I often do when I'm down that part of the coast, because you can see Sea Otters from the beach park. Unusually this time though, one of the otters was on the beach and I managed to take this photo from a little cliff above them. I needed a decent size zoom and I cropped the picture quite a lot to get it. I made sure not to disturb the otter.
In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I was one of those renaissance-artsy kids, always obsessively creating things. Writing when I barely knew how to construct sentences, drawing, sculpting, singing, dancing, dressing-up; I was engaged in storytelling in every possible way from my earliest understanding of human expression. My wonderful, tolerant college professor parents knew they had a compulsively creative soul on their hands, but they couldn’t have expected some of the obsessions that went along with that restlessly creative spirit.
I showed an early interest in and love of birds. They were always my favorite animals. My first word was “bird,” uttered while sitting atop a stone eagle at my father’s alma mater. I love winged, feathered creatures, real and mythical—to me, they have always represented magic, freedom, and limitless possibility. When I was given the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds around age 8 or 9, I began to understand birding as a science. I memorized the whole guide, bird by bird (just like Anne Lamott’s great writer’s guide), and began my “life list,” marking down all the birds I’d seen.
I learned the word ornithology and began to consider myself an ornithologist in training. My parents got me a subscription to Cornell University’s incredible magazine Living Bird and I assumed I’d attend college there as they have the leading ornithology department in the nation. I developed a keen eye for bird-like details in all kinds of surroundings. My mind stored increasing amounts of bird facts and calls, flight patterns and silhouettes. My eyes and heart were trained and attuned to these fragile, beautiful, majestic, miraculous, hollow-boned beings.
Birds have always been a symbol of the soul for me. In all kinds of traditions and mythologies, birds are seen as messengers and conduits to the heavens. As I’ve always been drawn to deeply spiritual narratives and symbols, birds became an extension of my thoughts on the soul and its ability to be more than just an entity within a body; an essence that could sometimes float and fly out from its bounds. Limitless possibility.
My love of ghost stories, of reading them and dreaming them up, of telling them around Girl Scout campfires, crested during this time of heavy ornithological obsession, likely due to that crystalizing sense of self and soul. I began to consider different birds as symbols for different spiritual and emotional states, birds as both signs of departed souls and creatures bearing tidings from the beyond. I’ve always lived in a pleasant openness with divine mystery. The infinite, unfathomable wonder of the world flits in and out of my notice like a lark or a hummingbird, sometimes swooping into my consciousness like a raptor or soaring dreamily out over open water like a gull.
My love of the arts eventually outweighed my obsession with the migratory patterns of sparrows and the call of my storytelling wilds drowned out the gentle, rasping chirps of chickadees. However I’ve never lost sight of my first great love. Birds play roles in all my work, as both characters and symbols. They often grace the covers of my books: the mythic phoenix graces Perilous Prophecy and ravens adorn all my Eterna Files. They appear as familiars, messengers, and harbingers. Much of my work takes metaphoric or literal flight, and I owe that to the creatures that have remained the keys to my heart.
I remain tied to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a constant supporter and modest donor; I am a member of NYC’s Audubon Society and love how the group tailors its love of birds and avid bird-watching to New York City living (there are many opportunities to be a birder in the big city!). I celebrate the vital environmental studies and legislative victories these institutions fight for and I worry for the fate of so many native species undergoing the threats of climate change. Birds are one of the first indicators of climate trends, problems, and changes. Canaries in the coal mines of our world, they are precious jewels we must take care of.
In these dark and oft trying times, it remains all the more vital to reach both inwards and outwards towards inspiration, to what’s not only within us as our great passions but what can be protected and treasured in the outside world. I invite you to look around you to find the symbols, icons, beings and creations that most inspire and excite you, and see what messages and meaning they have for you.
Leanna Renee Hieber is the author of The Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega. Perilous Prophecy is a standalone prequel to Strangely Beautiful. Rarely seen out of Victorian garb, Hieber has won several Prism Awards and was a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award. A talented actor and singer, Hieber has appeared on stage and screen, including episodes of Boardwalk Empire, and regularly leads ghost tours in New York City.
I’m sometimes startled to realize how many of the stories I’ve written have their roots in a role-playing game. They’re by far the minority among my published works, but even so: depending on how you count it, one novel series, one novella series, a novelette, and three short stories have been shaped in some fashion by my RPG experiences. If you include unpublished works, the list increases by at least two more novel series and another short story.
I say “depending on how you count it” because the nature of that influence varies from work to work. Nothing I’ve written is a direct retelling of a whole game. Some make use of pretty significant elements; one is barely related at all, being an idea that sprang sideways out of my character concept and thereafter had nothing to do with it. The process of adaptation changes based on what bit of the game you’re using as your springboard: a setting, a character, a plot. If you’re minded to adapt your own game experiences in some fashion, it can help to look at it from those angles and figure out what you’re dealing with—so let’s dig into each possibility in turn.
A Disclaimer: Before we get started, though, let me make clear: this post will largely be focused on the craft challenges of such an adaptation. As some of you probably know, there’s another dimension to consider, which is the legal one. An RPG is not a solo endeavor; it involves other players, a GM, game designers, setting writers, and so on, and that means copyright may be involved. This is a complicated issue, and I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to attempt to lay down any clear-cut advice in that regard; if you think you might be treading on such ground, I recommend you consult an IP lawyer for real counsel. But as my own experience shows, I don’t think such considerations automatically mean that RPG material can never be reworked as fiction, as long as you go about it the right way.
“The right way” should also be “the ethical way.” Even if your fellow players don’t have copyright on their contributions to the game, you still have an ethical obligation to respect their creative efforts. There’s a running thread throughout the rest of this essay, which is that whatever the core of your adaptation is, you should do as much as you can to change everything else—to come up with your own ideas, your own backstory, your own cosmology to underpin the world and outward flourishes to relate it to the reader. If you want to keep an element that originated with another player, talk to them first. Don’t just re-use their ideas without permission. Even if it’s legal, it isn’t very nice. And why would you want to risk a friendship over something like that?
With that said, on to the approaches!
Re-using the setting of a game for later fiction is either the easiest or most difficult form of adaptation, depending on the sense in which you mean it.
The easy road is the one that departs from a setting you made up yourself. The GM who invents a whole world in which to play out a story is proverbial; in fact, some of them already plan to employ that setting for short stories or novels, and are using the game as a way to flesh it out or share their ideas with others. If you’re the one who made up the world, awesome! Rock on with your creative self! Because the ideas are your own, there’s nothing stopping you from using them again elsewhere. I did something along these lines myself once; the world of the short story “A Mask of Flesh” is based on the research I did into Mesoamerican folklore for a Changeling: The Dreaming game. Remove the human side, leaving only the folklore, and I had a ready-made society of monkey-people and jaguar-people and feathered serpents, whose political structure and social customs were entirely my own work.
But what if the ideas aren’t your own? What if you were just a player, and your GM is the one who made up the world? The answer to that is between you, your GM, and your ethics. If the creator is cool with it, you can in theory go ahead and use their setting for stories—but you risk a minefield later. What if you write a novel and it becomes a bestseller? Shouldn’t you, in good conscience, share some of that wealth with them? What if they want to write their own books in that world, after you’ve already staked a public claim? I believe that second scenario is akin to the one Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont found themselves in with the world of Malazan; it was a joint creation from day one, and they agreed to each publish their own series based on their game, in consultation with each other. You may not wind up in so intense of a collaboration, but if you want to use a world one of your friends invented, I highly recommend that you write out and sign an equitable agreement beforehand… however you may define “equitable” in those circumstances. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid hard feelings later, but at least it reduces the risk.
When it comes to a setting made up by a company instead of a personal friend of yours, though, you’re scaling a pretty difficult mountain. Unless you’re writing licensed tie-in fiction for Paizo or White Wolf or Chaosium or whoever, that whole “equitable agreement” approach isn’t really an option. And while many elements that may appear in game settings are public domain—nobody owns the copyright on the general idea of vampires or faeries or space marines—the specific versions you see in those settings are not free for the taking. So if you’ve fallen in love with a game setting and really want to write a publishable piece of original fiction that takes place there, you’re going to have to break out the file and get to work on those serial numbers.
Which is, I’ll admit, easier said than done. The elements of a setting are interwoven with each other, and they create the flavor you’ve fallen in love with. You have to break that flavor into its component ingredients, so to speak, and figure out which ones you love the most, then—to run this cooking metaphor into the ground—invent a new dish to use them in. If what you love about Legend of the Five Rings is the moral dilemmas posed by the code of bushido, can you write a historical fantasy set in Japan instead? Or come up with a similar-but-not-identical moral code, and then create a society that follows such a code? If instead you’re really attached to the Spirit Realms, can you keep that part while replacing the human side of things wholesale? If what you love about the setting is the warring factions, each with its own strong personality, can you make a different, non-Japanese-inspired society with a similar political matrix? It will be tempting to carry a lot of details along for the ride, dividing each faction into a group of families and giving each family its own special techniques that —
Resist. Resist. Make yourself come up with something equally cool to take the place of those details. Keep only the ones that you really and truly love the most, the ones that inspire you to tell your own stories, and then set them like jewels in a crown of your own forging. Let the rest stay where it belongs.
But what if you can’t do that? What if you have a story you really want to tell, but it will only work if you use a very specific combination of worldbuilding details that are unmistakably derived from a copyrighted setting?
Then you have to accept that it will remain in the realm of gaming, fanfiction, or licensing. I adore the mythical history of the United States I came up with for my Scion campaign, but it fundamentally doesn’t work unless new gods start out as the heroic, half-mortal children of other gods, and Columbia and Britannia and Marianne are all former Scions of Athena who ascended to full divinity, and the enemies of the gods are creatures called Titans who are more like the elemental planes of whatever concepts they represent but they have Scion-like avatars who can act directly in the world. If all I needed was one of those factors, I could probably find a way to make it stand alone, but with all three? That’s a Scion story, and there’s no use pretending it’s anything else. Unless the owners and creators of Scion hire or encourage me to write a story in their world, I just have to live with my happy memories of the game, and be content with that.
By far the majority of my RPG adaptations have, at their root, been driven by character.
This is probably because almost every instance of me adapting an RPG into fiction has sprung out of the experiences I had as a player, instead of as a GM. In fact, I become much more strongly invested in my RPG characters than I generally do with those in the fiction I write, because my PC is the primary conduit through which I experience and influence the story. I perform their speech and behaviors; I think intensively about the things they want, the things they fear, their backstory and what they prefer to do with their spare time. I get to know my PCs much better than I could possibly know every NPC in a game I’m running, or every character in a story I’m writing. Is it any wonder that they’re so prone to lingering in my brain for years afterward?
The good news is, character-based adaptations can work really well, because your inspiration is often flexible. To be sure, no character is an island: their personality and life history are bound up in the setting they live in and the story you told about them the first time around. But if what you’re interested in keeping is the backstory or the personality or the emotional arc or something else of that sort, you can often transplant that root quite effectively, putting your Pathfinder paladin into some Dune-style space opera or your Changeling eshu into a secondary world. (The same thing is true in reverse: I once played a character who was basically Himura Kenshin as a transgender vampire.)
Here the question you have to ask yourself is, who is this character? Not their whole story, not every little thing that ever happened to them, but their core, the sine qua non of their identity. You can put Sherlock Holmes into the modern United States or Tang China or even make him a medical doctor instead of a detective, and he’ll still feel recognizably like Holmes if he has a mind like Holmes’ and uses it to solve puzzles that baffle everyone else. If Holmes, to you, is defined instead by a violin and a cocaine habit, then give him those things (or period/regional equivalent) and forget about the analytical ability. You’re the only one who can say what’s essential to the character, and what’s optional—and what you need to build around those bits in order to make them work.
But make sure that whatever you build still works in its own right. I have a trunked YA novel that’s inspired by a character I played in a tabletop White Wolf game, a popular teenaged girl who discovers her popularity is due to her being a telepath and unconsciously reading/influencing those around her. There were some other details from the game I really wanted to keep, things about her family history and relationships with the people in her life… but I did a really terrible job of coming up with reasons for those things that weren’t the ones we used in the game. (For example, replacing a vampire boyfriend with a guy who wound up immortal by a different, insufficiently-defined path.) The novel’s trunked because it looks like exactly what it is, a resurrected Franken-corpse stitched together out of disparate parts that don’t quite fit together like they need to. Until and unless I can fix that, the book’s going nowhere.
Oh, plot. You knew this was coming: the big one, the all-encompassing Story that you want to retell, in its full and radiant glory.
I’ll break it to you now: you cannot make that work. Not in its entirety.
Not even if it’s set in a non-copyrighted world and you have the written and notarized permission of everyone who ever ran or played in that game. This isn’t an issue of ethics, not in the first instance; it’s an issue of pragmatics. To put it bluntly, a game directly transcribed into fiction is going to be a bad piece of fiction. Games don’t work like written stories; their pacing is different, their narrative techniques are different, their focus shifts differently when switching between various character and plotlines. Events in games happen because the dice said so. Characters drop out of the plot and then reappear because a player was out of town. People often criticize movie adaptations for altering the story from the novel, but the truth is, that’s necessary; what works in one medium falls flat in another. Whether you’re going from book to movie or movie to book, you have to play to the strengths of your medium, rather than trying to approximate the techniques of the source. The same is true here.
As with any other kind of game adaptation, you have to decide what it is you really care about. When I was writing the novelette “False Colours”, I knew I wouldn’t try to include the entire one-shot LARP it came from; as with any LARP, I was wildly ignorant of half the plotlines (which coincidentally included every plotline where magic was involved), and trying to replace them would only take the narrative attention away from the story I really wanted to retell. My goal was to recreate the serendipitous moment where, just when my allies were secretly formulating a plot to help me escape my problems by faking my death, I accidentally got shot by my own captain. If the LARP was a tapestry, that was a single thread pulled from the fabric. Then, having pulled it, I ditched everything involving magic and espionage and mummies rising from the dead, and set about weaving an entirely new cloth around that thread.
This approach poses the biggest ethical complications, when it comes to respecting the contributions of other people. You can make up a setting or thoroughly revamp an existing one and do just fine, and a character exists so much in your own head that, while other PCs and NPCs may have had an influence on them, you can still consider what you’re working with to be your own creation. But plot? Plot is a collaborative thing. It’s exceedingly difficult to use it in any great detail without bringing in the actions—which is to say, the creative efforts—of your GM and fellow players.
The further you let yourself stray from the source, the easier a time you’ll have of it. I say that “Love, Cayce” is inspired by a game I played in, but the inspiration consists of “the children of a bunch of adventurers grow up to be adventurers themselves and then write letters home about the crazy things they’ve been doing.” The plot-based resemblances more or less end at the first line: “Dear Mom and Dad, the good news is, nobody’s dead anymore.” But when I wrote “False Colours,” it wasn’t just about my cross-dressing naval lieutenant; it was also about her best friend and her love interest and her captain and our GM, the backstory we’d all invented together and the actions we took during the game. I went to greater lengths with that story to obtain permission from my fellow players than I did with any other adaptation I’ve attempted to date, and I won’t be surprised if it continues to hold that record for the rest of my career.
A Closing Exhortation
The common theme throughout this post has been “figure out what you need to keep, and then change everything else.” Which leaves one final step: be willing to change the essentials, too.
I’m not saying you have to. After all, there was some bright spark that made you want to write this story; I’m not going to tell you to extinguish it. But you may very well find, as you’re working on your draft, that even those bits you thought were essential aren’t quite. The new ideas you came up with have developed their own momentum, leading you in directions that aren’t the one you originally planned for. Be willing to go with that momentum—the same way you would if the plot of a game you were playing in took an unexpected turn. Gustav Mahler defined tradition as “the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes,” and the same concept applies here. Don’t ossify the original game material; let it grow and change to fit the rest of what you’ve built around it.
And have fun. There’s a special pleasure in reworking an idea, like a musician remixing an older song; if all goes well, then in the end you have two great songs to listen to.
This article was originally published in October 2016.
Marie Brennan is the author of multiple series, including the Lady Trent novels, the Onyx Court, the Wilders, and the Doppelganger duology, as well as more than forty short stories. The Varekai series of novellas—Cold Forged Flame and Lightning in the Blood—are is available June 6th from Tor.com Publishing. More information can be found at her website.
It begins, like so many hauntings do, with a house.
Junior’s house, though, is not your typical haunted home: it’s not old, has no secret compartments or hidden historical artifacts, and no one has died there. Junior lives with his mom and his little brother Dino in a modular house, cheap and small and different from a trailer only in that it stays put. “You can leave the reservation,” he overhears his mom say, “but your income level will still land you in a reservation house.” And just like that, they’ve brought their ghost from the reservation as well. When Junior sees him one night, dressed in full fancy dance regalia, he knows immediately that the ghost is his dad. He also knows that he’ll do whatever it takes to make him come back.
Stephen Graham Jones’ new Tor.com novella, Mapping the Interior, is a ghost story and a coming-of-age story; it’s a horror story with race and class breathing down the reader’s neck every bit as much as the dead. It’s also not quite like any version of those things you’ve read before. If most hauntings are metaphysical, Jones’ is physical: the legacy of Junior’s father is written on his body as well as his memory.
There’s no reason for Junior to know the ghost is his dad (he died when Junior was just four years old), just as there’s no reason for the ghost to have been able to find his family so far from the reservation. But Junior knows, nonetheless, right when he sees the feathers and undulating movements that signify the competitive dancing of his community. His father was never a fancy dancer during his lifetime, though he aspired to become one someday, if he could just turn his life around. “That’s how you talk about dead people, though,” Junior explains, “especially dead Indians. It’s all about squandered potential, not actual accomplishments.” In death, though, his father has ascended. In death, he has returned to take care of his family, as he had never done in life.
With Dino getting sicker by the day, Junior can no longer protect him from every bully, or even from the neighbor’s dogs that threaten them on the way home from school. His mother, too, can only do so much when she’s working long hours and cut off from her family. Junior is convinced that he can make his father manifest more permanently if he can just find where in the house he’s coming from. And so he begins to map the interior. Every inch could hold the key to saving Dino, every buried piece of trash could be the gift that makes their father stay. To recreate his first vision, Junior tries to mimic its original circumstances: sleepwalking, tying his legs down tight to force them asleep, constantly struggling to see things out of the corner of his eye. As Dino gets sicker, and as Junior begins finally to dig underneath the house, their father becomes clearer and clearer everyday.
Considering Mapping’s brevity and (even moreso) its horror elements, it’s a difficult story to summarize without spoiling. I can only hope that the gesture I’ve given to its creeping story and disturbing conclusion will encourage readers to pick it up. Junior’s small, narrow home, and his first-person perspective make for a claustrophobic narrative, one that is perfectly suited for its novella form. The more obvious horror elements, too, are fitting: encounters with the ghost and its timeline are aching rather than shocking, upsetting rather than scary. They are bruising, like the residue of grief.
I had never read any of Jones’ large oeuvre before this, but after reading Mapping, I can’t help but be drawn to it. Native American perspectives (let alone specifically Blackfeet ones) are rarely highlighted in any genre. Bringing Jones’ background and sensibility to the haunted house trope reinvigorates it, and highlights the recursive relationship between memory and culture. Junior, with his unreliable narration and child’s logic for the world’s cruelty, makes for a compelling protagonist of such a story. And finally, Mapping the Interior is gorgeously-paced, with just the right combination of understatement and profundity. It’s not to be missed.
Mapping the Interior is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.
Webcomics are full of untamed creativity, experimental stories, and wholly unique casts, not to mention creators ready and willing to tackle subjects generally avoided by the mainstream. A few webcomics have made the transition to print (the big one in recent years is, of course, Nimona), but most stay online. The freedom a creator has online to do whatever they want doesn’t even come close to Image’s creator-friendly environment. Which is why I love webcomics so much.
I’ve been dying to do a webcomics edition of Pull List for ages, and the combination of Pride Month and needing a break from Big Two comics finally gave me a good excuse. Trouble is, there are so many great webcomics out there that it was impossible to choose just one or two to talk about. After winnowing my very long webcomics library down by series that have recently updated (as in not sporadically or on hiatus) and are not being published in print by major or small/indie presses (excluding self-pub), I offer you a list of some of my current favorite queer SFF webcomics While a few are managed by working comics creators or artists, most are from newbies or non-professionals. Some series are fairly new, others have longer running arcs, but all offer something mainstream comics don’t: a broad range of queer and racially/ethnically diverse characters written and illustrated by creators just as varied.
Acethexis by Florence Summers
While out at a club one night, teenagers Ren Namikase and Kotone Hisagawa run into Lena, an android on the lam. Lena is an illegal, an android who can experience true emotions and has the capacity to learn without being taught. Kotone doesn’t want to get tangled up with Lena’s messy life, especially since illegal androids have the nasty habit of harming their human companions. But Ren is drawn to the ‘droid. With its cutsey art style, Acethexis, is flirty and fun, but there is danger creeping in around the edges. For an 18-year-old high school student, Summers is brimming with potential. If this is what she can do now, I can’t wait to see her with a few more years of experience and practice under her belt.
Agents of the Realm by Mildred Louis
This adventurous, girly, coming of age tale owes a lot to mahō shōjo (the “magical girl” subgenre of anime/manga). While the art style is more cartoony than manga, the heart is straight out of Sailor Moon. Jordan, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Norah are freshmen at Silvermount University. Each girl has her own issues – Norah Tanner, anxious and uncomfortable; Adele Silveira, friendly and warm once you get to know her; Jordan Liu, loyal, eager, and a bit co-dependent; Kendall Matthews, good at mediating conflict yet a dysfunctional rescuer; and Paige Fierro, an ambitious, short-fused smartypants – not to mention an alternate dimension version of themselves. With the aid of their magic amulets, the girls must learn to work together to protect their world and its alternate, not as easy a task as it seems.
The Arthurian Smut Cycle by Soren Haxan
Side project of the creator of the Medieval Death Bot Twitter account, which lists deaths taken from coroner roles from the 1200s-1500s, Arthurian Smut Cycle retells the Arthurian myths with a queer overlay. Or, as Saxan puts it, “It attempts to rejuvenate the homosociality & -sexuality latent in 14th century chivalric literature into a palpable work of heady queerness while pushing back against the centuries of erasing queer people from history by making some of the most infamous (if not actually historical) characters queer themselves.” The black and white illustrations are detailed and expressive yet clean and uncluttered. Now partway through the second chapter we’ve seen royal court intrigue, magical manipulation, and adorable flirting between Merlin and Arthur. I’m very much looking forward to watching their relationship develop.
Book of Paradise by KA Harding and Psychushi
Another newish series with not much in the archive. Doctor Saxon Oliveira is a museum curator – officially the Curator of the Paper Wing and 34th Century Artifacts for the Corinlian Institute of History – who longs to become the museum director. In the middle of his bumbling pitch to his superiors, a rift in the universe opens up. The cause? A roguish redhead and his magic book. The mystery man kicks Saxon out of his world and into another. Psychushi’s art is sketchy and messy, but I mean that in a positive way. I think it works well with Harding’s script, which is really enticing. I’m definitely sticking around to seeing how this story develops.
Goth Western by Livali Wyle
Weird West is one of my all-time most beloved fantasy subgenres, so of course I had to include it in this masterlist. Goth Western tells the story of Evie and her girlfriend Jack. When Evie is shot to death over an attempt by her scoundrel brother to steal her late father’s bar, cowpoke Jack sets out into the wilds with her corpse. There, she trades her soul to a god to bring her love back to life. The lovers make their way to Jack’s hometown, where they encounter a young man leashed to a death god. Another few towns over, a mysterious serial killer is slaughtering locals. Although almost entirely black and white, Livali’s watercolor-like artwork is emotive and expressive, the monochrome broken up with splashes of vivid red and detailed. It’s as beautiful to look at as the story is compelling.
Heart Hex by Miri Davila
While there’s not much to Heart Hex yet, what’s available is enchanting. When her cheating boyfriend Ant dumps her for another woman, Lee is devastated. She summons the demon Rosier and makes a blood pact to get revenge on Ant. What starts out as an impulsive decision made from a place of deep, dark anger, becomes something she can’t control. Lee’s path crosses with a muralist named Teo when he visits her for a palm reading. It’s still early days for the series, so it’s unclear what the future holds for Lee and Teo, but with Rosier hovering around it can’t be good. With Miri’s talent, I can’t wait to find out. I just love her creative panel layouts and color choices.
Love Circuits by Taneka Stotts and Genué Revuelta
Yvonne had one helluva birthday party. She wakes the morning after to a disaster of an apartment and the unexpected delivery of a refurbished Heartbreaker android. The ‘droid, named Lucos, is a belated gift from her good friend Frankie. Lucos and Yvonne’s android service dog, Beau, don’t exactly get along, and making things even more complicated is the arrival of Yvonne’s ex, Javier. Mediocre lettering is common amongst most webcomics. It’s one of those technical skills often overlooked when done well and very noticeable when done poorly. Letterer Melanie Ujimori isn’t just a professional, she’s a damn good one. Of all the titles on this list this is the most traditional, in that it’s structured, colored, lettered, and paneled like something you’d find in the BOOM! Box line. Between her easy-to-follow lettering, Revuelta’s lovely art, and Stotts’ intriguing story, Love Circuits is a damn fine series.
Meriel’s Law by Illuia (aka Kath Kirkegaard)
Meriel’s Law is Kirkegaard’s first published comic, but you wouldn’t know it. Meriel is a long-suffering witch dealing with some heavy stuff from her past. When June turns up at her door selling magazines Meriel doesn’t want or need, June isn’t deterred and follows her into town. How AH. MAZE. ING. it is to have not an all queer cast, but one where their queerness isn’t the main focus of the story! Not to mention that Meriel and June are exactly the kind of characters we never get in mainstream comics. Meriel isn’t skinny, has moles, and isn’t conventionally gorgeous. June is genderfluid/non-binary, bi- or multiracial, and is literally covered in freckles. Sure, the lettering and the coloring could be improved, but those are skills that can be learned over time and with practice. For what it is right now, though, Meriel’s Law is delightful. Gimme gimme gimme more.
Obelisk by Ashley McCammon
It’s New York in 1908, and Eve Reuter has just taken over her late father’s business. But as she starts digging into his business prospects, with the aid of his associates Martha and Alex, she learns that her father had some serious secrets. Eve goes looking for answers and instead she finds Margot, a mysterious curio shop owner. Eve eschews dresses for slacks and prefers working on her bicycle to embroidery. McCammon’s art is unlike anything else on this list. It’s simple and straightforward while old-timey and energetic. We haven’t actually met Margot yet in what’s been posted, but Evelyn is quirky enough to keep me coming back for more.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.
With The Dark Tower hitting cinemas this year, his directorial debut Yardie having just finished principle photography, and John Luther set to fight London’s most twisted crime in an upcoming fifth season, Idris Elba is in the middle of a very prolific year. Elba’s always great, but some of his very best work to date has been in genre films, where he never fails to bring authority, humor, and intelligence to the role. Here are some of my favorites.
First up, a few honorable mentions. His work in RocknRolla is ridiculously good fun; in fact, the entire movie is. Gerard Butler, Elba, Tom Hardy, and Toby Kebbell as gloriously incompetent criminals must represent some kind of Brit actor singularity, and they’re all fantastic in the film, especially Hardy as Handsome Bob and Elba as the endlessly laconic Mumbles.
His work as Heimdall for Marvel is also impressive, as is his array of voiceover work. Then there’s his turn as tortured DCI John Luther, his work as Nelson Mandela, his mesmerizing role in Beasts of No Nation, and so on. But in genre terms, you don’t get better than his work in the following films—at least until The Dark Tower comes out…
Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Pacific Rim)
First off: BEST. CHARACTER. NAME. EVER.
Secondly, Elba’s turn in Pacific Rim is central to very nearly everything that makes the movie work. As Stacker, he plays a former Jaeger pilot who, it’s heavily implied, has been promoted off the line in order to keep him alive. Along with Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh he’s one of the only people in history to drive a Jaeger solo and live. Unlike Raleigh, it’s killing him, following a fatal dose of radiation.
This being Pacific Rim, and this being Stacker Pentecost, that mostly just annoys him.
Stacker’s persistence, years later, is the embodiment of the scrappy, bloody-nosed spirit of Pacific Rim. His speech to Raleigh about his job—“All I need to be to you and everybody on this dome is a fixed point—the last man standing.”—reinforces that. He is endurance and tenacity personified, the rock hard moral and ethical core that the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, and the movie itself, revolve around. He’s dying. He fights anyway. No one else has any excuse.
But where the character of Stacker really shines is in the way he interacts with other characters, most notably Mako (played by Rinko Kikuchi). His adopted daughter, raised in the Corps and with the tips of her hair dyed the blue of Kaiju blood, Mako is a clenched fist looking for something to punch. That’s on Stacker, and the film is at its best when it shows that he’s both a devoted father and one that struggles to be good enough. Their final scene together, separated by a mile or so of ocean and multiple Kaijju, could be interpreted as melodramatic, and I’m sure it strikes some people that way. For me, though, it’s painfully emotionally honest and sweet.
It’s not just Stacker’s interactions with Mako that bring out the depths in this performance, either. His relationship with Herc Hansen, the other old warhorse, is sketched in but no less poignant. Herc, like Mako, knows that Stacker doesn’t have long to live. He also knows, when Stacker takes his place in the final run, that the odds are good he’ll never see his friend or his son again. He lets them go, making his peace.
Then there’s Raleigh, for whom Stacker is alternately an immovable object and a scalable peak to strive towards. The two men have shared trauma, a shared past, and far more common ground than they see at first. For Stacker, Raleigh is a proxy, a man who can do what he knows will kill him. For Raleigh, Stacker is the embodiment of everything he’s run from and everything he once aspired to be.
Most of all though, Stacker’s memorable because he’s Henry V in an angry, mobile skyscraper. The “cancelling the apocalypse” speech doesn’t just work because it’s rousing, it works because Elba is able to show us every emotion Stacker is working through as he rallies his troops. He’s terrified. He’s serene. He knows for certain this will kill him. And above all else he’s bubbling over with satisfaction at finally being able to DO something. The closed fist he’s made of his daughter is being thrown, and he’s there to help set up the punch. He’s happy, as much as he’s enraged and impassioned, and that’s what really lands the speech. That, and the “I don’t remember it being so tight” moment, which always gets me somewhere between laughing and crying. Stacker knows time has passed. He knows his time is almost up. And he knows exactly what he plans to do with what he has left.
Here’s to you, Marshal Pentecost. We look forward to your son continuing the family tradition.
Captain Janek (Prometheus)
Arguably Elba’s most high profile film role (prior to The Gunslinger), 2012’s Prometheus saw him playing the captain of the Prometheus itself. Janek is the sort of blue collar space trucker that Parker and Brett from Alien would get on with. Or, at the very least, they’d enjoy some good-natured arguments together.
Janek works because he’s such an honest and straightforward character. In a film that, thanks to some mystifying cuts, frequently appears to be full of idiots (RUN TO THE LEFT, VICKERS! RUN TO THE L—ahh, DAMN IT), Janek is never, ever one of them. He’s a welcome control for the movie and one of the parts that genuinely holds the rest of it together. (Plus, he really does love that tiny Christmas tree. It’s endearing.)
Chief Bogo (Zootopia)
While my (Manx) island boy heart will always gravitate towards Moana and Lilo and Stitch as my favourite Disney movies, Zootopia is right up there, too. It’s not only a clever and subtle story about race relations and Nature vs. Nurture debate but also a smartly constructed thriller and the best mismatched cop movie since…the last mismatched cop movie you really, really liked (take your pick).
A huge part of the film’s success is the voice cast, all of whom are fiercely great. Ginnifer Goodwin’s endlessly perky, wry Judy Hopps is fantastic, and she and Jason Bateman’s fast-talking fox, Nick Wilde, bounce off one another brilliantly. J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart and Jenny Slate as Bellwether are great, too.
Elba’s turn in the movie is a small but vital role, and interesting in a couple of different ways. As Chief Bogo, he runs First Precinct and is Judy’s commanding officer. That instantly sets up a fun size/power dynamic, as Bogo’s colossal Cape buffalo frame towers over Judy. However, as the movie goes on it, becomes apparent there’s much more to the Chief than just size. Bogo’s attitude is as biased and bigoted as Judy’s, but in subtly different ways, and the film takes both of them through the other side of that with surprising delicacy and perception. His reading glasses, too, hint at an interesting age difference/generational gap, but it’s when you realize that he’s a herbivore in charge of a squad largely consisting of carnivores that the character really begins to unfold in interesting ways. Bogo’s had to work just as hard as Judy to succeed in the force for different reasons, and that changes how he sees her. At least at first.
Bogo was originally written as a one-note character, but with Elba’s casting he was expanded to take on some more comedic elements and greater nuance. His colossal love for Gazelle is the big payoff to this, as is the implication Bogo may be gay (at least according to some corners of fandom). It’s never confirmed, but he and Clawhauser make an adorable couple and whether you subscribe to that reading or not, Elba’s work is impressive, sweet and honest throughout the film.
General Stone (28 Weeks Later)
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 28 Weeks Later has none of the faux-Dogme 95 cinéma vérité stuff that chokes the life out of 28 Days Later. There’s no overbearing soundtrack, no ludicrously accurate drops of blood, and a definite change in focus. Instead of being a character-driven sequel, it’s an event-driven sequel picking up six months after the outbreak that began in the earlier film.
The result is a movie that feels like a hybrid of those moments in 28 Days Later that do work brilliantly (Jim’s parents, the contrail) and something we almost never get to see: what happens after the world ends.
An expeditionary force spearheaded by the U.S. Armed Forces has taken back a sizeable chunk of London and, with the Rage-infected population almost dead from starvation and attrition, resettlement has begun in earnest. The UK is a mass grave, streets deathly quiet, and the film follows one particular family group as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Inevitably, things go sideways and the action shifts to US Army medic Scarlet (Rose Byrne), Delta Force sniper Doyle (one of Jeremy Renner’s career-best turns) and chopper pilot Flynn (the always brilliant Harold Perrineau) as they race to get a pair of vitally important children out of London before it’s firebombed to sterilize the new outbreak of infection.
There is so much to be said about this movie—the interesting ways it builds on the original and just how badly it ultimately fumbles the landing—but that’s a story for another time. What’s particularly interesting is Elba’s turn here as the US Army CO, General Stone. Stone’s a gifted soldier and diplomat, and a man whose job clearly weighs heavily on him.
In a kinder movie, Stone would be a figure similar to the surprisingly nurturing and supportive Colonel Weber, as played by Forest Whitaker in Arrival. But he isn’t that lucky. Instead, Stone makes every right choice and it doesn’t matter. It’s a small role, but Elba gives it both the authority and dignity needed to make this smart, good, tragically unlucky soldier one of the movie’s most memorable characters.
To sum up: intelligence, charisma, humour, and, on occasion, colossal monster-punching robots, magical demon-killing six-shooters, or just a really great coat—clearly, Idris Elba’s got it all covered. When he’s the hero of the piece, there’s a good chance the apocalypse will be cancelled, permanently; can’t wait to see what he does next.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.
In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I have a history of not being picky about my writing implements, which makes it all the more hilarious that I got sucked into the rabbit’s hole that is fountain pens. I’ve used everything from the ubiquitous Monami ballpoints that you find in South Korea to cruddy No. 2 pencils (hello, Scantron!) to glitter gel pens. Thumbnail sketches and math problems take on a certain glow when you do them in glitter gel pen.
My first fountain pen was a gift from a generous benefactor, but developed a leak and didn’t last long. I forgot about fountain pens for a while until I came across a website and fell in love with examples of flex-nibbed calligraphy, which takes advantage of a nib’s ability to flex to create line width variation. In real life, the better way to get into this is through dip pens, which are cheaper and flexier, as opposed to with a (usually expensive) vintage fountain pen whose nib you might damage with this sort of tomfoolery. But I was entranced. I bought one anyway.
I spent the next several years reading up on fountain pens, messing with fountain pens, and writing with fountain pens. This is a hobby you can either do on the cheap (relatively speaking), with less expensive pens like the Lamy Safari or Pilot Metropolitan, or at the far end, with limited edition Montblanc or Japanese maki-e pens running to the thousands of dollars and beyond. I’m somewhere in the middle.
What I like about fountain pens as a hobby is that there’s something for almost every budget. The disposable Pilot Varsity is affordable and is very reliable; the refillable Platinum Preppy, although fragile, runs under $5 if you just want to try things out. I like that fountain pens are frequently beautiful (although beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder) and that they come with a bewildering variety of filling mechanisms if you like to geek out about that stuff. (For a first-timer, I recommend a cartridge/converter pen–and be aware that some companies make proprietary cartridges/converters, so be sure to get the right one for your pen!) I like being able to choose from the wild variety of ink colors. Your options are more limited if you stick to cartridges, but if you opt to fill from bottled ink, the sky’s the limit. There are even inks that come with sparkling gold or silver particles in them if that’s what your heart desires, although you have to be careful to use them in a pen that won’t clog.
Most of all, I got into fountain pens at a time when reading was exhausting for me and I needed a low-effort hobby. A fountain pen is something that I can appreciate and use with very little work, as opposed to a book. I can simply look at and admire the beauty of a well-made fountain pen. Or I can write with it, and that’s pleasurable too. Even when I’m not writing fiction with a fountain pen, I do a lot of journaling. No one else is going to read those journals, but the process of sitting down with a pen and notebook and writing out my thoughts is soothing. I also like sketching with my fountain pens. Some of them are better for this purpose than others, but the results are fun.
As it turns out, I wrote the rough drafts of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem (and also Revenant Gun) in fountain pen. For Ninefox Gambit, I mostly used my Webster Four-Star and Waterman 52V, both vintage pens. (Jedao’s signature gun, the Patterner 52, was inspired by the Waterman’s name. Someday I’ll acquire an actual Waterman 52, not just the vest pocket version–which is what the “V” means.) I wish I could show you scans of Ninefox Gambit or Raven Stratagem‘s rough drafts, because I used every color of ink I could get my hands on and the results looked like My Little Pony vomit, but we were flooded out last August and the notebooks and papers were among the casualties. I still write longhand revision notes, however, and I’m considering going back to doing longhand drafts because something about the physicality of the process helps me think.
Yoon Ha Lee’s space opera novel Ninefox Gambit and its sequel Raven Stratagem are available from Solaris Books. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.
It perhaps says something that one of the most remarkable aspects of the life of Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier de Villandon (1664-1734), at least on the surface, was just how unremarkable it was. While most of her fellow French salon writers of fairy tales and novels alike were busy conducting scandalous affairs, travelling throughout Europe, dabbling in intrigue, entering and escaping dire marriages, and finding themselves exiled from the court of the none-too-tolerant Louis XIV, and often Paris itself, L’Heritier lived a comparatively quiet and, apparently, chaste life—if one that still had a touch of magic.
The niece of fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, daughter of a historian, and sister of a poet, she met and befriended several fairy tale writers in the salons of Paris, and was inspired to write tales of her own. Her talent and erudition eventually earned her a patron, the wealthy Marie d’Orleans-Longueville, Duchess of Nemours, which eventually turned into a small annuity after the Duchess’ death. Equally important was a friendship with the formidable and controversial Madeleine de Scudery, these days renowned as the probable writer of Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus, one of the longest novels ever published, but at the time noted for her scholarship and fierce defense of women’s education. De Scudery not only befriended the considerably younger woman (De Scudery was born in 1607) but left the fairy tale writer her salon at her death in 1701.
This bequest may have been prompted in part by L’Heritier’s Oeuvres meslees, a fairy tale collection published during 1695-1698—the exact same time that her uncle Charles Perrault was publishing his best known tales (The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods in 1696, and Histories ou contes du temps passé, which included Sleeping Beauty again, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots).
Indeed, the timing later led some scholars to suspect that Charles Perrault was the actual author of at least some parts of Oeuvres meslees, including its best known fairy tale: The Discreet Princess, or the Adventures of Finette. The tales do contain some similarities: a rather arch tone, an insistence that they occurred, not in some distant fairy land, but in a very real part of Europe at some point in the past, and comments on the manners of their French contemporaries. But The Discreet Princess is not only longer and more intricate than most of Perrault’s tales, it also contains a rather unusual motif for him: a princess dropping a prince into a sewer.
Unusually enough for a fairy tale, “The Discreet Princess” is set in a very specific time period: the First Crusade (1095-1099), though admittedly this is less to make a point about the medieval and crusader periods, much less provide an accurate description of those times, and more to provide a convenient excuse for sending the king away for a few years—something that the tale only emphasizes by noting, just a few sentences later, that “people were quite simple during these happy times,” a description that would have startled most of the people involved in the First Crusade. About the only realistic part of this is that the one crusader in the story stays away on crusade for a number of years, fairly typical of many crusaders. Anyway.
The king, hearing about the Crusade, decides to go off to it, noting only one problem. No, not the cost of the crusade, or the potential issues with leaving his kingdom under the care of ministers, or even the ongoing conflicts that would be sparked by this and later crusades. No, he’s worried about his three daughters. Nonchalante is extremely lazy; Babillarde (often called “Babbler” in English translations) will not stop talking; and Finette, as befits the youngest of three fairy tale daughters, is practically perfect in every way, right down to discovering financial cheating by a king’s minister. (To repeat, oh king, why aren’t you worried about these ministers, who HAVE been caught attempting to screw you over?) Despite Finette’s cleverness and near perfection, and, as the tale will later reveal, a general fondness for her sisters, these are not, the king decides, girls that can be left behind on their own, so, worried about their honor, off he heads to a fairy for some help. The request presumably reflects L’Heritier’s Paris experiences, where nobles and others frequently requested assistance from more powerful patrons, but I couldn’t help thinking that just maybe the king should have listened to more fairy tales, with their pointed warnings that asking for help from a fairy often lands people in trouble.
The king asks the fairy for three glass distaffs that will magically break when and if any of his daughters lose their honor, which, look, king, I get that you feel your options are limited, but I gotta say: not exactly the most practical choice here. I mean, I get the nod to at least attempting to honor what was often seen as women’s work, but even I, in the post-industrial age, have seen plenty of women with distaffs, and you know what happens with pretty much all of them? That’s right: they fall on the ground. A lot. Making it more than likely that the princesses could be models of excellent deportment and honor and still shatter their distaffs. Though, that said, since distaffs are also generally wrapped with fiber, it’s equally possible that the princesses could end up doing something terribly dishonorable and yet find their distaffs left completely whole, protected by the fibers. SPOILER THAT DOESN’T ACTUALLY HAPPEN but it could, oh king, it could.
I should note at this point that by “honor” both the king and L’Heritier mean “virginity,” not “honesty” or “keeping promises” or “killing lots of Orcs” or “having Brutus explain that really, you are an honorable man” or “standing up for what’s right” or any of the sorts of things that we might associate with honor these days. This will be important.
Anyway, perhaps realizing that the glass distaffs are not exactly a foolproof solution, the king also decides to lock the three girls away in a tower, in an echo of the women sent to convents, not always willingly, that L’Heritier had known. Incidentally, at this point even the king admits that none of his daughters really done anything—other than Finette, who, as it turns out, has managed to infuriate a neighboring prince, Rich-Craft, by uncovering his attempt to deceive their kingdom in a treaty, something Finette’s father, with her agreement, responded to by deceiving Rich-Craft in return. The other two are guilty only of laziness and gossip, certainly nothing that would justify imprisonment. But honor is honor, so off the girls head to the tower to be locked up.
Naturally, the two eldest sisters soon become extremely bored, a common fate of princesses locked up in towers in a pre-Netflix age. Equally naturally, Rich-Craft, now out for revenge, decides to take advantage of this. Disguising himself as an old woman, he convinces Babillarde to let him up into the tower. Nonchalante goes along with this in a nonchalant sort of manner, and look, that’s L’Heritier’s pun, not mine, so I’m leaving it. It does not take him too long to shed the disguise and convince first Nonchalante, then Babillarde, to “marry” him (without the benefit of clergy, I should note). Their distaffs shatter. He then turns his attention to Finette, who responds by waving a hammer.
This would convince most men to back away, but not Rich-Craft, who particularly wants revenge on Finette. Thinking fast, Finette carefully makes a bed for “them” on top of a sink with a large drain leading directly to a sewer. She doesn’t get on the bed.
Getting dumped into a sewer does nothing to calm Rich-Craft’s temper. After a much needed bath and some time to recover from his wounds, he begins a battle with Finette—who, in the meantime, has fallen into a clinical depression because her sisters have lost their honor, like, Finette, you just dumped the guy who seduced them into a sewer. Cheer up. Plus, you have a lot of other things to focus on, like, getting kidnapped by Rich-Craft’s servants, pushing Rich-Craft into a barrel studded with nails and rolling him down a mountain, sealing your new little nephews into boxes (with air holes, I hasten to add, but still), and disguising yourself as a doctor so you can leave the boxes with Rich-Craft, claiming that the boxes have “medicine” instead of “babies” which you’d think the sounds coming from the boxes would have alerted nearby people to the difference, but maybe these were unusually quiet babies. Or very terrified babies, whichever. Oh, and welcoming your father home—whose response to all of this is to send his two oldest daughters off to the fairy, who sends them out to do some gardening, which kills them.
No, really. The Discreet Princess is mostly a warning about the dangers of losing your virginity to any guy who decides to enter your tower dressed as an old woman, but it’s also, I think, a bit of a jab about aristocrats, or at least French aristocrats, trained to do so little that even pulling weeds kills them. And, admittedly, a hint of the author’s lack of interest in either character, once their moral purpose has been met: they’re dispatched in two quick sentences.
Finette, you’ll be glad to know, ends up happily married to Rich-Craft’s brother, Bel-a-Voir, if not before some more Fun Stuff with a sheep’s bladder and some blood, which is all to say, if you’ve ever felt that your fairy tales just did not have enough seriously gross things like falling into sewers, sheep’s bladders, babies sealed into boxes, and blood, this is your kinda tale.
It’s also a tale that, for all of its seeming focus on the importance of virginity and honor, primarily focuses on the virtue of distrust. With the arguable exceptions of the king and the fairy and some barely-in-the-story fishermen, those who trust others—Nonchalante, Babillarde, Rich-Craft and Bel-a-Voir—all end up suffering greatly for the error of trusting someone’s word. Three end up dead; the last loses a brother and has an issue with that sheep’s bladder. The fairy sums everything up with her remark Distrust is the mother of security.
The tale also showcases the way seemingly proportional responses to conflict can escalate that conflict—in this case, going from a minor deception involving a treaty, to three dead people and one smushed sheep’s bladder and quite a lot of blood. Sure, part of the point here is “lying during treaty negotiations will not, in the long run, go well,” but I also can’t help but think that it is possible—just barely possible—that had Finette and the king responded to Rich-Craft’s initial attempt to deceive them over a treaty by, say, simply declining to sign the treaty, instead of deciding to trick him in return, Rich-Craft might not have decided to come after the three daughters in revenge.
In this, for all its happy ending, The Discreet Princess presents a decidedly bleak picture of court life: a life where women can be sent away and locked up on the mere suspicion that they might do something; a life where exposing issues in a treaty can later make you a political target; a life where someone else’s actions might make you a political target; a life where your children can be taken from you (by the good guys) and never seen again; a life where your mother might be killed by gardening. Quite a contrast from the court life presented by L’Heritier’s uncle, Charles Perrault, who found success in Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, and described court life as a place where even commoners like Cinderella and Puss-in-Boot’s human could succeed, if only they had the right manners, and, ok, yes, a fairy godmother or a talking cat.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the entire collection was dedicated to Henriette Julie de Castalnau, Countess of Murat (Madame de Murat) banished from Versailles in 1694 for writing political satires.
L’Heritier does not offer the options of fairy godmothers or talking cats. Instead, she warns readers to distrust everything, except for self-education. Finette’s sisters, who spent their time either in gossip or lazing about, end up dead. Finette, who studied diplomacy, reading, music and needlepoint, is able to keep herself focused and amused in the tower—and thus, able to withstand temptation, and survive. It’s a powerful argument for the education of women, though it’s a bit of a two-way sword: Finette becomes a target largely because that education and focus brings her into the political side of court life. On the other hand, her less educated sisters aren’t spared, becoming targets thanks in part to their family’s political manipulations—and end up dead. Finette survives.
I’m left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the death sentences dealt out to Nonchalante and Babillarde seem overly harsh, to put it mildly. I can quite see that Nonchalante would have been a burden to her servants, but prior to getting locked up in a tower, Babillarde’s fondness for gossip hardly seems to have hurt anyone except herself, and even then, the real wrongdoer here is Rich-craft—who probably wouldn’t have succeeded had the princesses not been locked in a tower, away from everyone. Babillarde spends time searching for and helping her older sister, and all three of them appear to be genuinely fond of one another. And speaking as a person who has often succumbed to both, the idea that an affinity for laziness and gossip should result in death—well, my skin is crawling a bit over here.
Nor am I all that thrilled that for all of the punishment doled out to Nonchalante, Babillarde, Rich-Craft and Bel-a-Voir, that the other prime mover in all of this—the king—gets away with virtually no consequences whatsoever. Virtually—his two oldest daughters are dead—but this doesn’t seem to bother him very much. Otherwise, his reward for responding to deception with deception, locking his daughters away in a tower and then sending two of them off to their deaths, and marrying off his youngest daughter without consulting or even notifying her? Living happily ever after. Er.
And if you’re wondering what happened to those little babies in the boxes, well, I am too. About all I can tell you is that the boxes were opened. What happened afterwards? It’s a fairy tale, filled with unfairness. I can’t reassure you.
But I can say that for all of this, The Discreet Princess gives us a fairy tale princess who isn’t afraid to swing a hammer at a foe, drop unworthy princes into a sewer or push them into barrels studded with nails, dress up as a (male) doctor and trick unworthy patients, or use sheep’s bladders when necessary. Sure, she also nails babies up in boxes and leaves them with mostly strangers, and sure, she has a tendency to fall into major depressions more than once, but she can still swing that hammer, and warn us that princesses might need more than glass slippers to survive court politics. It’s something.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.
In 1966, at a gathering of J.R.R. Tolkien fans in New York City, the poet W.H. Auden—once a student of the Professor’s at Oxford—famously stated: “Tolkien is fascinated with the whole Northern thing.” In describing Tolkien thus, Auden coined a phrase that encompassed more than mere geographical direction. It was, according to the late Steve Tompkins, himself a formidable essayist and scholar of Tolkien’s work, “the mythology, many-legended history, and darkness-defying worldview of the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples.” This dynamic was woven into the cultural DNA of the Professor’s beloved Anglo-Saxons, as well. All the peoples of the north held the same basic belief: that Fate was inexorable, that the good fight must be fought, and that victory—however glorious—was transient. In the end the monsters would win, and the long twilight of the north would give way to an eternal darkness where even the gods were doomed.
While Tolkien is arguably the most recognizable standard-bearer of “the Northern thing”, he was by no mean the first. Antiquarians and writers such as George Webbe Dasent, William Morris, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur poured forth thunderous tales of naked will and courage unfolding in the shadows of a pre-ordained ending of the world. And readers in the 19th and early 20th centuries lapped it up. Since then, whole generations of writers have turned their eyes in Auden’s so-called “sacred direction”, seeking inspiration for their own fiction in the tales and myths of pre-Christian Scandinavia. Myself included. Below, I give you five such books—not necessarily the most popular or the best-of-the-best, but five books which nonetheless embody the whole Northern thing, with its clash of iron and its grim determination that while an enemy might ultimately win the day, he won’t win this day.
Hrolf Kraki’s Saga by Poul Anderson
In the great tapestry of northern legend, the name Hrolf Kraki is woven throughout in glittering silver thread. We know of him from such diverse sources as Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum; from the sagas of the Skjöldunga and the Ynglinga; from the Skáldskaparmál of the Norse; from the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and especially from the eponymous Icelandic tale, Hrólfs saga kraka. What Poul Anderson has done, though, is to take this remote figure of Arthurian proportions and render him in flesh and blood for the modern reader, giving context to the sometimes inexplicable motives and feelings of the ancient Scandinavians. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is a grim and magnificent tale, filled with betrayal and murder, sibling rivalry and incest, and enough ax-play to sate a berserker.
Swords of the North by Robert E. Howard (Rusty Burke, ed.)
Of all the writers on this list, only Robert E. Howard had a view of the world not dissimilar from the grim ideals of the North. Indeed, it colors his work, from his first published story, “Spear and Fang” in 1924, to the last tale of that indomitable barbarian, Conan of Cimmeria, written before Howard’s death in 1936. Without exception, his characters—though lusty and larger than life—fight against “the iron collar of Fate” to make their mark upon the world before “sinking into final defeat with the froth of a curse on his lips.” This hefty 540-page volume, though rare, collects the finest examples of Howard’s prose and verse exemplifying the Northern thing. My own favorites include “The Grey God Passes,” about the Battle of Clontarf, and the brief but haunting “Delenda Est”.
Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
Though perhaps best known as the author of the wildly popular techno-thriller Jurassic Park, in 1976 Michael Crichton explored the Northern thing with Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in AD 922. Utilizing as his starting point the actual 10th-century manuscript of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan—who was an emissary from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars—Crichton skillfully builds a unique tale that mirrors the epic Beowulf. The tale veers from the historical when Ibn Fadlan is taken North against his will by a band of Vikings, led by the mighty Buliwyf, to combat a creeping terror that slaughters their people in the night. Along the way, the reluctant hero bears witness to the curious customs of the Northlands, from ship burials and human sacrifice to single combat and the fatalistic philosophy of the Viking.
The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell’s is a familiar name to fans of historical fiction; he is the reigning king of the bloody and thunderous epic, with tales running the gamut—from the Stone Age through to the Napoleonic Wars. But with The Last Kingdom, set in a 9th-century England wracked by war, Cornwell really hits his stride. It is the tale of Uhtred son of Uhtred, a dispossessed earl of Northumbria, who is captured as a child and raised by pagan Danes. Uhtred is a Viking in all but blood, as swaggering and headstrong and profane as his foster-brother, Ragnar Ragnarsson—and every inch as dangerous in that crucible of slaughter, the shieldwall. Historical fiction is close cousin to fantasy, and Cornwell blurs the edges between the two by having characters who believe in the myths of the North, in the power of prophecy and magic. This clash of cultures, and of faiths, comes to a head when Uhtred is forced to choose: live as a Dane and become the enemy of God and King Alfred of Wessex, or return to the Saxon fold, pledge himself to Alfred, and perhaps win back his stolen patrimony: the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg.
Blood Eye by Giles Kristian
Reminiscent of Cornwell’s Uhtred, Osric—the hero of Giles Kristian’s Viking tale—is a young orphan who has no memory of his past. A deformed eye the color of blood marks him as a pariah among the villagers of Abbotsend on the coast of southern England, where he has spent his youth apprenticed to a mute carpenter. Such is the same small and lackluster life he expects to lead … until Norse raiders come to Abbotsend. Kristian’s Vikings, led by Jarl Sigurd the Lucky, are wondrous to behold: true sons of the North drawn in the vivid colors of their age; bold and fearsome and raucous men who want nothing more than wealth, wine, and women—men who seek Odin’s weather and a glorious death, sword in hand. The Norse spare Osric, who becomes one of them: a hard-as-nails reaver, a killer of men, touched by the Allfather; Sigurd names him Raven, and like a pack of wolves they fare forth in search of fortune or a storied death.
Top image from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Scott Oden was born in Indiana, but has spent most of his life shuffling between his home in rural North Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age. He is an avid reader of fantasy and ancient history, a collector of swords, and a player of tabletop role-playing games. He is the author of A Gathering of Ravens, available from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a novel that pairs the “whole Northern thing” with a lifelong love of Orcs. His previous books include The Lion of Cairo, Memnon, and Men of Bronze.
Thank you for pressing the self-destruct button, Tor.com. This website will self-destruct in two minutes! Okay, not really. But maybe you should read this post at ludicrous speed, just in case.
That’s right: today’s Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia is one of the most parodiest of all sci-fi film parodies: 1987’s Spaceballs! Whoo!
(I apologize in advance, by the way, for the sheer number of gifs under the cut. But I just couldn’t help myself!)
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
LIZ: We should do the drinking challenge this time.
ME: I feel like I might get in trouble for that. Also that we might get alcohol poisoning.
KATE: Not possible, we have seen this movie TEN BILLION times.
“The drinking challenge”, O my Peeps, refers to an often-discussed-but-never-actually-
Like all drinking games, this is (a) an inherently terrible idea, which is (b) probably going to happen at some point anyway. Even if it didn’t on this particular occasion, because I am a dreary killjoy who hates fun, according to certain unnamed parties.
Kate’s point, though, is valid, in that we have seen Spaceballs so many times over the course of our lives that we probably really could recite just about every line from memory. And I know what you’re thinking: why, exactly, have we watched this movie so freakin’ much?
Well, I mean, “because it’s funny” may seem like a reductive answer, but it does have the virtue of being true. Still, there are lots of very funny movies out there that we have not seen eleventy zillion times, including most of Mel Brooks’s oeuvre, so why this one in particular?
On reflection, I think it had to do with two things more than anything else: timing, and subject.
Parody, particularly the brand of joke-a-minute goofball slapstick parody Mel Brooks is famous for, generally tends to do best with people occupying a rather specific sweet spot on the maturity front. By which I mean, you have to be mature enough to have the knowledge to understand what’s being parodied (and what parody even is in the first place), but you also have to be juvenile enough to genuinely enjoy things like pratfalls and dick jokes and general relentless silliness.
A lot of people hit that sweet spot and then leave it as adults (and a lot of people—like, say, Mel Brooks—hit that spot and then never ever ever leave it), but you generally don’t arrive at that sweet spot until your age is at least in double digits. Before that you’re generally just too young to get why exactly making fun of other people’s art can be so entertaining.
Spaceballs came out in theaters in 1987, and went to VHS the next year, and to cable probably within a year after that. Which meant that in terms of timing, it arrived in my life at pretty much the precise juncture I was most likely to think it was the most gut-bustingly hilarious thing ever invented in the whole wide world—whether it actually was or not.
Spaceballs is probably not the most gut-bustingly hilarious thing ever invented in the whole wide world. But I retain enough of my inner pre-teen-year-old that you’ll never be able to totally convince me (or my sisters) of that.
Which brings me to the other reason Spaceballs was so viscerally satisfying for my siblings and me to watch over and over and over again, and that of course is what it was parodying: i.e. Star Wars.
I know Star Wars is once again a big deal in the world (and that it honestly never really stopped being a big deal, even before the new sequels came out despite the prequels what prequels there are no prequels), but even so I don’t think people who weren’t kids in the late 70s and 80s can really appreciate what a Honkin’ Humongous Deal Star Wars was to those of us who were. I’m not going to let this article derail into a Star Wars appreciation post, so just trust me when I say that our appetites were so whetted for new Star Wars material (that at the time we thought we were never going to get) that even a parody of the franchise was cause for paroxysms of joy.
Spaceballs covered a lot more territory than just Star Wars, of course, lampooning everything from Alien to Indiana Jones to the above Planet of the Apes even to The Wizard of Oz, but at its core it was a Star Wars parody, and that made our geeky selves incredibly happy.
As a side note, I’m not a hundred percent sure whether this movie was the thing that introduced me to the concept of breaking the fourth wall, but I sure did love when it did. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which also took great glee in the trope, came out in 1986, but I almost certainly didn’t see that in the theater, so who knows which one I saw first.) Dark Helmet getting knocked down by a dollying camera should not be so freakin’ funny, for example, but it really is.
Although that might just be because every single thing Rick Moranis did in this movie was hysterical, then and now. My sisters and I basically can’t mention him or his delicious send-up of Darth Vader without segueing into a flurry of quotes.
KATE & LIZ: “KEEP FIRING, ASSHOLES!”
So many of the jokes in this movie should absolutely not have worked, except that the actors delivered them so well. Moranis is the clear winner, but he had George Wyner (as Colonel Sandurz) as well as Mel Brooks himself (as President Skroob) to play off of, and the three of them together were hilarious.
Also awesome despite the fact that in general I didn’t care for them as comedians were Joan Rivers as C-3PO send-up Dot Matrix and John Candy as Chewbacca stand-in Barf. RIP, you two.
LIZ: That’s Barfolomew!
Bill Pullman, meanwhile… eh, he got the job done as Lone Starr, the haphazard sort-of generic hero amalgamation of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.
KATE: He’s better than Greg Kinnear, anyway.
LIZ & ME: [very long stare]
ME: That is the strangest thing you’ve ever said.
KATE: I was trying to think of comparable actors!
Sure thing, honey. (Does anyone even remember Greg Kinnear at this point?)
Anyway. Daphne Zuniga as Druish Princess Vespa got in a couple of good zingers (and has a lovely singing voice), but really her greatest contribution to the movie (and should have been to fashion and/or electronics) was her Princess Leia headphones, which is one of the many things I was terribly sad to see were not available to buy at the time (or now, apparently, even though someone was selling them at one point).
But this is because there is no merchandise from Spaceballs—none official, that is. Which makes the whole moichandising! scene pretty ironic, really. Apparently Brooks made a deal with Lucas that in return for Lucas’s endorsement, he wouldn’t produce any Spaceballs merchandise, because Lucas thought they would look too much like Star Wars merchandise. Which, besides being kind of a dick move on Lucas’s part, seems completely dumb to me. Like getting to buy a Yogurt doll wouldn’t have stopped me from also buying a Yoda doll.
KATE & LIZ: “May da Schwartz be with you!”
…Although I have to admit that these days I would be much more likely to buy a Yogurt doll. So maybe it wasn’t dumb on Lucas’s part, who knows. (Still a dick move, though.)
Speaking of Druish princesses and Da Schwartz, I’m… not sure I’m up to getting into the Jewish jokes, and why it’s okay for a Jewish man to make Jewish jokes but not okay for non-Jews to do the same, but if you want some (lengthy) commentary on the subject of Mel Brooks and the ethics of satire, here you go. Suffice it to say that generally speaking, as far as I am concerned comedy is funny when it’s punching up, or at least sideways, and not otherwise; and that therefore if there’s anywhere I feel like Brooks falls down on the job it is where it concerns women, but usually not otherwise. If we were discussing Blazing Saddles I would probably have to examine that more closely, but fortunately we’re not, so I don’t! Yay!
ME: STOP HARSHING MY SQUEE, LIZ.
The ethics of it notwithstanding, though, the question is: is Spaceballs still as funny as it was in the 80s?
It is to us, mostly: a few of the lamer jokes have lost their luster, but the many priceless bits remain priceless (and if I listed them all we’d be here till the end of time, but here’s one of my faves, just for you):
But would it be as funny to a non-alive-in-the-80s audience? Liz thinks not, pointing out how dated many of the references are. I disagree, though. Sure, maybe millennials will have no idea that the Dink Dinks’ song is from Bridge Over the River Kwai (which predates even us) or why a reference to the “Ford Galaxy” is funny, but the sheer number of properties lampooned in Spaceballs that have been rebooted or rejuvenated since the 80s (including Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and Star Wars itself) means that an awful lot more of the humor in it remains current than probably ever could have been reasonably expected.
KATE: And besides, some things are just universally funny no matter how old they are.
We would love to watch this movie with someone who’s never seen it, to see how funny they would find it, but agree that we would almost certainly annoy this person to death by gleefully yelling all the best quotes along with the movie, so—
LIZ: “Did you see anything?”
KATE: “No, sir! I didn’t see you playing with your dolls again!”
—SO we shall have to be satisfied with the knowledge that we, at least, still love it, and probably always shall.
And that’s all for now, kids! Time to close with our Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
Hopefully there will not be a delay for the next MRGN like there was for this one (sorry about that), so come back in two weeks for more!
Earlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)
The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.
Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container.
Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds.
Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.
Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination. Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse.
Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure.
This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did.
A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.
The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share.
May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.
Welcome back to the Warbreaker reread! Last week, Lightsong sent his newly-acquired Lifeless squirrel on a successful mission, and Vivenna was at last brought up out of the gutters again. This week, Siri capitulates, Lightsong dreams, and Vivenna learns.
This reread will contain spoilers for all of Warbreaker and any other Cosmere book that becomes relevant to the discussion. This is particularly likely to include Words of Radiance, due to certain crossover characters. The index for this reread can be found here. Click on through to join the discussion!
Point of View: Siri
Setting: The God King’s Bedchamber
Timing: Undetermined, but at least a few days after Chapter 40
Take a Deep Breath
Siri and Susebron enjoy their nightly post-bouncing picnic; Siri is reminded that Returned appear as they wish to appear, so Susebron can eat as much dessert as he likes. She wishes he would be a little less obedient to his priests, but is disconcerted when he reveals that he has talked to his priests using the artisans’ script. He asked why his father died right after he was born; their responses were so evasive that he begins to think Siri may be right about them.
Siri reminds him of Treledees’s reverence for Susebron’s Breath, and together they reach the conclusion that perhaps the entire purpose of the Hallandren monarchy is to be a vessel for that treasure. Suddenly, they realize that the new God King might not be the son of the old one: perhaps a baby has Returned, and the priests are using Siri to create the fiction of a royal baby preparatory to killing Susebron after forcing him to give his Breath to the baby.
Susebron sadly realizes that if he was not the son of the previous God King, the woman who raised him may not have been his mother. His sense of loss brings him to ask Siri about her family, and they distract themselves with the Idrian royalty. He notices that her hair doesn’t change color as much lately, and she admits that she has learned to control it to reduce her own vulnerability. This reminds them to worry over the rumors of war.
Susebron returns to personal issues, and confesses that his mother was not the only person to ever have loved him: Siri has. Hesitantly, he kisses her, and in spite of all the rational objections, she responds. A small part of her fears that they will give the priests the excuse they seek, but she ignores that. Susebron doesn’t know what to do, but Siri does, and the scene fades to black.
They had to make my family kings because of how much Breath was in that treasure. And they had to give it to a Returned—otherwise their king and their gods might have competed for power.
“Perhaps. It seems awfully convenient that the God King always bears a stillborn son who becomes Returned…”
She trailed off. Susebron saw it too.
Unless the next God King isn’t really the son of the current one, he wrote, hand shaking slightly.
What a frightening insight that would be, for both of them. All the things they thought they knew, and the things they thought they could control, just collapsed on them.
The annotations go directly to that question, and we’re told that Siri is right in recognizing that the next God King isn’t necessarily the son of the current one. The spoiler section explains that it is possible for a Returned to have children, but it requires special knowledge that we won’t learn until the sequel. The priests know, but since it’s not 100% reliable, they sometimes do what Siri guessed. If an infant Returns, the priests take it as a sign that it’s time for a new God King; if his wife can’t get pregnant (which they’d really prefer), they will use the other infant.
Susebron was one of those infants who Returned and triggered a replacement, and they really did bring his mother with him to raise him.
There is, right now, an infant Returned; that his Return coincided with the fulfillment of the Idrian treaty, the priests take as both vindication of faith, and deadline for a pregnancy. BUT:
Note that there’s not, in fact, any danger to her either way, no matter what Bluefingers says. She and Susebron, following the change in power, would have been taken to one of the isles in the middle of the Inner Sea and kept in a lavish lifestyle as long as they lived.
So… the current political situation does threaten Siri’s homeland, and Bluefingers’s plans threaten Siri and Susebron directly, but not in the way she has assumed. Sigh.
And yes, after the fade, Siri and Susebron finally consummate their marriage.
Point of View: Lightsong
Setting: Lightsong’s palace
Timing: The same night as Chapter 44
Take a Deep Breath
Well, there’s not much to say about this chapter. I think I’ll just copy and paste.
That night, Lightsong dreamed of T’Telir burning. Of the God King dead and of soldiers in the streets. Of Lifeless killing people in colorful clothing.
And of a black sword.
Well, there’s a right nightmare for you.
Sanderson’s annotations are way longer than the chapter, and talk about how he’s always wanted to do a super-short one like this. Also, this is where he’s most bummed about the need to have more tension earlier in the book; while it strengthened the story as a whole, it weakened the impact of this chapter. It’s also noted that this is specifically, and not coincidentally, the same night as the previous chapter; the possibility of Siri actually having a child just went up (!) and it affects the future. Lightsong, as a Returned, is sensitive to such changes, and so his dreams just took a turn for the worse.
Point of View: Vivenna
Setting: A small rented room in T’Telir, and its environs
Timing: Undetermined, but at least a few days after Chapter 43
Take a Deep Breath
Vivenna eats alone, choking down yet more fish, so exhausted that it’s difficult to sleep. Vasher has been working them both very hard, meeting with one group after another, all working-class men and women, who can influence their friends and family not to participate in activities that will push Hallandren to war.
In this rare solitary moment, she considers a subject she’s been avoiding: her identity. No longer the confident princess, but not the beaten-down wretch either, she’s not truly even the penitent princess she’s playing for her people right now. Her personality is still the same—still determined, still committed to the Five Visions, but with a better understanding of herself and the world around her. She wants to learn to Awaken; she hates being helpless. So she begins to practice.
After various experiments resulting in completely gray clothing, Vivenna has learned many things that don’t work, and a few that do. Vasher returns and gives her a few practical bits of advice, then points out that the gray clothing is a little obvious in T’Telir. They return to their tiny room, where he remarks on her un-Idrian desire to learn Awakening, though he doesn’t understand why Austrism suddenly condemned Awakening after the Manywar. He also comments that she is not what he expected. Finally, he begins to explain Awakening Theory to her in a very scholarly manner, even as he insists that BioChroma is complicated, and humans understand very little about it.
He abruptly ends the lecture by refusing to explain a Type Four BioChromatic entity, and tosses her a package which turns out to contain a dueling blade, telling her that she needs to learn to defend herself. With that, they’re off to meet another group.
“All right,” he said. “I guess this is for the best. I’m getting tired of you walking around with that bright aura of yours that you can’t even use.”
“Well, I think we should start with theory,” he said. “There are four kinds of BioChromatic entities. The first, and most spectacular, are the Returned. They’re called gods here in Hallandren, but I’d rather call them Spontaneous Sentient BioChromatic Manifestations in a Deceased Host. What is odd about them is that they’re the only naturally occurring BioChromatic entity, which is theoretically the explanation for why they can’t use or bestow their BioChromatic Investiture. Of course, the fact is that every living being is born with a certain BioChromatic Investiture. This could also explain why Type Ones retain sentience.”
Vivenna blinked. That wasn’t what she had been expecting.
This cracks me up all over again, every time I read it. She was just looking for a little training, some practical how-to instructions… and all of a sudden it’s BioChromatic Theory 401 up in here, and she’s wondering just when this street turned into a college campus.
The annotations focus mostly on why Sanderson wanted to do certain things, but he starts with Vivenna’s need to figure out who she is at the core, now that most of her trappings are gone. Then he goes into why he waited until this point to explain the magic, and how long he’d planned to write this scene with Vasher-the-scruffy-curmudgeon suddenly talking like a scientist—and also that there are Clues as to who he really is. Then there’s a chunk on the origin of Awakening as a magic system, which is cool but you should just go read it.
Snow White and Rose Red
Well, our girls are in very different places now, but at least they’re both progressing in positive directions now. Siri, thanks to Mab’s instruction, is now exactly where she didn’t want to be, but she also did…
To back up a little, I’ll confess to a good bit of irritation with Siri’s line about wishing Susebron were more reckless, impulsive, and independent. While I understand what she’s getting at, and it might indeed be better for him to question his priests, or at least insist on a better education and real answers to his questions… at the same time, she’s got a very juvenile assumption that somehow recklessness and impulsiveness would be a good thing, even in a man who is more powerful than she registers. With that kind of power, would you really want the God King to be reckless and impulsive!! Independent, yes; willing to think for himself, yes; able to advocate for himself, absolutely. But not reckless just for the sake of being reckless. Kids these days.
I do, however, have to acknowledge her sense of fairness. On the one hand, she doesn’t think Susebron is very capable when it comes to getting information from his priests, but she realizes how inconsistent it would be to chastise him for doing the exact thing she just said he ought to do. So there’s that much.
While Siri is more and more focused on Susebron and his potential danger, Vivenna is taking a large step backwards from her former persona. She’s very reflective in these chapters, because she has to figure out who she is besides an Idrian princess. She’s not 100% there yet, but her self-evaluation has become much more honest since Denth betrayed her trust. She recognizes the value of her inherent determination; even though it was long directed at becoming the perfect Idrian princess to marry the Hallandren God King, and that goal has been overcome by events, it’s always been part of her. She’s just realizing that perhaps her definition of “the perfect Idrian princess” had a lot of false standards:
She was also a hypocrite. Now she knew what it was to be truly humble. Compared to that, her former life seemed more brash and arrogant than any colorful skirt or shirt.
She did believe in Austre. She loved the teachings of the five Visions. Humility. Sacrifice. Seeing another’s problems before your own. Yet she was beginning to think that she—along with many others—had taken this belief too far, letting her desire to seem humble become a form of pride itself. She now saw that when her faith had become about clothing instead of people, it had taken a wrong turn.
Poor Vivenna; she’s realizing that a set of rules is far easier to follow than a general admonition to humility and selflessness.
I also think it’s pretty awesome that, just as she decides that she really wants to learn Awakening despite the tenets of her religion, Vasher casually mentions that Austrism didn’t always forbid it. That’s a relatively recent event, even—only 300 years ago or so. (In the annotations, it’s mentioned that this is partly because Awakening was still a fairly new thing at the start of the Manywar, and that part of the reason for the Idrian mistrust is that they had some bad experiences with it.)
As I Live and Breathe
Vivenna’s practicing reveals a number of the limitations of the magic system, though Vasher’s instructions does little to address them immediately. But I do so much love the fact that what we call “magic” is, for a scholar on Nalthis, something to be evaluated, measured, and studied as a science. That just makes my little engineer’s heart happy! And of course I’m amused at the way most people assume that because they can do it, they “understand” it… when one of the greatest scholars on the planet is fully aware that they really know very little at all. Again, the annotations point out that Vasher, as a scholar, not only has a lot of good information, he also has a pretty good understanding of what, and how much, he doesn’t know yet.
In Living Color
Returned, Returned everywhere. Proceeding in order:
Susebron—and the reader – is gradually learning about himself and his situation, but the conclusions he and Siri are reaching are wrong at least as often as they’re right. They made a good catch this week, when they figured out that the succession doesn’t necessarily have to be literally father to son. But at the same time, Siri’s absolute distrust of the priests goes too far; she attributes far more sinister motives to them than they actually have. Of course, to be fair, they do absolutely nothing to reassure her: their determination not to trust her or Susebron with the truth, and their high-handed treatment of her, would be enough to make anyone at least question their trustworthiness. Keeping their own God King in such ignorance has finally convinced even him that they might not have his welfare at heart. And naturally, Sanderson plays with the readers’ expectation that the priests are corrupt, because priests are always totally corrupt and power-hungry vultures, aren’t they?
Lightsong gets far more action in the annotations than in the chapter, but it all boils down to the connection a “Spontaneous Sentient BioChromatic Manifestation in a Deceased Host” has to the cognitive and spiritual realms. So he has horrid dreams which really, really are prophetic—at least in terms of “these things are likely to happen.”
Vasher. I wonder what I thought about Vasher by this time on my first read-through. The contrast Vivenna thinks about, between his tattered appearance and his obvious scholarship, should be setting off alarms everywhere… at least once you know it should. Let’s pretend we all saw this, right? Anyway… I do like the way he gives her credit for integrity when he acknowledges that she’s not what he expected, and promptly decides to go right ahead and give her the full fire-hose BioChroma education. I also like that the annotations tell us he’s right, because reliable narrators are not all that common in Sanderson’s writing.
Don’t Hold Your Breath (Give it to me!)
Vasher’s categorical refusal to even talk about the fourth type of BioChromatic entity is a major cluebat. I suspect most semi-savvy readers are making the connection to Nightblood, at least once Vivenna voices her suspicions in her own mind; the fact that Vasher tells her never to ask again should make it clear that there’s something seriously dodgy about the sword and his connection to it.
Like Fresh Blue Paint on a Wall
“Spontaneous Sentient BioChromatic Manifestations in a Deceased Host.” Austre, Lord of Colors, what a mouthful. I can’t decide whether it’s hilariously ostentatious or awkwardly accurate!
I find myself more and more frequently wishing I could remember my reactions to this book the first time I read it. By now, between skipping forward and backward to check on things, and reading all the annotations several times and often out of order, I have real trouble remembering what I should know with confidence, what I should be figuring out, and what ought to be just a faint glimmer of suspicion. Too bad you can’t go back in time…
Well, that’s enough anyway. Let’s hear your comments! And be sure to join us again next week, when we will cover chapters 47 and 48, in which Lightsong remembers Calmseer and collects Allmother’s Lifeless soldiers, while Siri and Susebron plan how to reach out beyond the priests.
Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan. As the Oathbringer preparations continue to ramp up, look for an article next week on the beta read. Behind the scenes, the copyedit review stands at 71% (or a bit more by now), and the gamma read is expected to start in early or mid-July.