Disks of Gold and Glass (The Writers of the Future Contest)

There’s been a discussion/debate on Twitter in the past few days about the Writers of the Future contest and workshop.

The Writers of the Future (WOTF) contest and workshop has been around since the 1980s. I decided early on that this wasn’t a contest for me, but I always thought it was a good contest, or at least an okay contest.

The WOTF has a lot to recommend it:

  • It runs quarterly.
  • The quarterly first prize cash payout is $10oo.
  • The annual Grand Prize payout is $ 5000.
  • Usually, they have good judges, names like Brandon Sanderson and Nancy Kress.
  • There is no entry fee.
  • It is for beginning and semi-pro writers only (as defined by the contest).

All of these things make WOTF really attractive. $5000 for the Grand Prize is more than you could get in a sale to a commercial market.

The problem is not immediately obvious, but the WOTF contest has a connection with the Church of Scientology. For years, many writers assumed that the connection was slight and indirect. Recently, people are taking a second look at that. There is a concern that the “firewall” between the Church of Scientology and the WOTF is dissolving.

The contest and the Writers of the Future workshop is directed and managed by Author Services, Incorporated.

Author Services Inc exists to represent the prose output of dead SF writer L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard cranked out a lot of short novels back in the pulp era. Then he founded a self-help system called Dianetics and the Church of Scientology.

Author Services Inc is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church of Spiritual Technology.

This is described by the Church of Scientology as “an autonomous church of the scientology religion outside the International Ecclesiastical Scientology Hierarchy.” It exists to maintain the scriptures of the Church of Scientology International (CSI). This is according to Wikipedia.

Author Services, Inc, facilitates and sponsors the annual Writers of the Future Contest, which has been around since 1984 or 1985 (sources differ). The Church of Spiritual Technology came into being as a legal entity in 1982.

I’m going to digress here because, well, honestly, just because. According to Wikipedia, the primary purpose of the Church of Spiritual Technology is to transfer every word of L. Ron’s Hubbard’s spiritual scriptures onto stainless steel plates that will be stored in an underground vault, while videos and speeches will be saved onto “gold compact disks encased in glass.” I have to pause for a moment and admire this, because it is just so…. science-fictional.  Doffing my imaginary chapeau in the direction of Ridley Walker for a moment, I invite you all to close your eyes and imagine a time 1,000 years in the future, when the humans of that time (and yes, I think there will be some) excavate this underground vault (the vault exists now) and find these plates and these golden disks. I wonder how they are going to play those golden CDs.

But, okay, back to the contest. Workshop attendees and contest winners are nearly 100% in agreement, from what I could find online, anyway, that no one at either the awards ceremony or the workshop tried to proselytize about the CSI. (They do beatify L. Ron Hubbard). The award ceremony is fancy. (You can see one here on Youtube if you have nearly three hours to spare.) Neither the contest itself nor the workshops seem to be any kind of Scientology recruiting tool.

The videos of the awards ceremony, however, are shown at Scientology events and held up as positive examples of church-related events, and for some people this is a problem.

The second layer of that problem is that recently the CSI’s ability to control the information that was released about it has eroded. For decades, the CSI used money and intimidation to keep people from talking about what happens behind its gilded doors. Lately they haven’t been as successful. HBO’s film Going Clear (inspired by a book of the same name) shined a light on the church and Leah Remini’s nonfiction series for A&E, Scientology and the Aftermath, won an Emmy. With the revelations, the image of the CSI changed for many members of the public. Instead of a dippy but basically harmless celebrity cult, the organization suddenly looked violent and rapacious, tearing apart families, sucking them dry financially and subjecting them to violent psychological tactics of control, in fact, not unlike an evil empire in a science fiction epic.

When you’re a writer and your talent is used to burnish the reputation of some media-obsessed hippy-dippy celebrities, that’s one thing. When the group using you to enhance their profile is separating children from parents, charging church members $30,000 for a mandatory church course, and following, surveilling and harassing former members who are seeking their own path, that’s something else. Some emerging writers are finding it unpalatable.

I’m waiting to see what happens, both to the contest and the workshops. Some of the writers who have judged and taught at the workshops will continue to, I’m guessing. Since the money flows from the CSI to the contest and not vice versa, they may not see a conflict, and the contest has a good track record. Many others, natives of Twitter and social media, may feel less comfortable. Even if the CSI takes some hits, both legally and socially, after all, the ASI is an independent organization, and it may weather the crisis. Maybe, in 1,000 years, our descendants will excavate L. Ron Hubbard’s vault and find not only CDs of gold and glass, but stacks of anthologies filled with brilliant speculative fiction, written by the contest winners.

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Like a Midnight Hike

I’m looking at a small press contract, thirteen pages long. It’s a standard contract for the industry, but I have a few questions. It’s for a piece of fiction I haven’t finished yet. I was offered the contract based on an excerpt and a one-page description– a “pitch.” (It was invitational.) This is a new experience for me.

Two weeks ago I was a guest on a podcast. I nearly said “No” when the host, Juliette Wade, invited me because I’d never done one and I was scared. I was scared the technology would be an obstacle, and I was right about that, but Juliette helped me work it out, and I was a guest after all. It was a new experience for me.

A fiction market has had a story for a long time. A very long time. (Okay; years.) I was superstitiously afraid to follow up with them, sure I’d get, “Oh, did we forget to tell you? We rejected that thing 13 months ago, right after you checked last time.” This was a new exp– oh, wait. This is not actually that new an experience for me. What was new was that I finally sent the polite second follow-up. It garnered a nice response (they are still considering it) and not an immediate rejection.

All of these things, even the pacing-the-floor-it’s-with-the-senior-editors-I-can-hope-I-can-hope story submission, are good things.

They are scary. I’m scared.

I was going to say, “I feel like  I’ve just clipped my harness to the zipline,” but I discarded that simile. First of all, ziplines go fast. None of these experiences is going quickly.

Secondly, with a zipline, there’s a line; there’s a harness. There is support.

I think the better analogy is — I’m on a midnight hike on a trail I’ve never been on before, and the light in my flashlight is flickering. I don’t know where to step. Does the trail climb? Does it decline? Does it drop off the edge of a cliff? I don’t know, and I can’t quite see.

Why didn’t I bring some spare batteries?

Alone in the Dark Forest. Original Art by mikithemaus@deviantart.com

Alone in the Dark Forest. Original Art by mikithemaus@deviantart.com

Well, like the zipline, I actually have more support (fresh batteries) that I might have thought at first.

Regarding the contract, which is a nuts-and-bolts kind of thing, I have already used two readily available resources. Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SWFA) has a Contracts section on their website. It contains definitions and explanations, and farther in, some sample contracts. This part of the  site is open to everyone, not just SFWA members. I also e-mailed my friend and mentor Marta Randall and got a quick response from her on my most urgent question. The contract is no longer scary.

(Finishing the work, which they can still reject… that’s still scary.)

That piece, and the pitch, undoubtedly made it to the second round and led to a proffered contract largely because of the help of my writers group, especially Margaret Speaker Yuan who helped with the pitch.

Writing a pitch is a skill. It can be learned and with their help I’m learning it.

Juliette Wade is a great host and interviewer who creates a fun, low-stress environment on her Dive Into Worldbuilding podcast.

Nothing can help with the OMG-I’ll-be-so-bummed-when-the-reject-it waiting period for the story — however, the story has made it that far, and that’s promising. And it’s a good story.

The Hermit from the Rider Waite Deck

The Hermit from the Rider Waite Deck

I’m on a new trail, and I don’t know the way… but I’m not completely in the dark.


(Check out more beautiful, atmospheric art at mikithemaus.deviantart.com.)


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The Third Kind of Magic by Elizabeth Forest

Elizabeth Forest and I met several year ago at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. We catch up online and see each other nearly every year at FogCON. Elizabeth has published her first book, The Third Kind of Magic. It’s a middle-grade fantasy with a beautifully developed magic system, a flawed and engaging young heroine and a suspenseful plot.  Along the way we meet shapeshifters, particularly a flock of wild geese, wise women and vengeful witches, and my person favorites, a family of crows.

Elizabeth gave me an Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of her book but I made no guarantee of a review.

In Suli’s world, the local villagers make a distinction between wise women, who use the magical powers of seeing and healing, and witches, who are considered evil and use the third kind of magic, control, most frequently expressed as the Voice. When Suli uses a powerful magic to protect her brother from bullying, her grandmother sends her far from the village to study with the wise woman Tala. At first Suli is homesick and rebellious, especially since Tala has her pulling weeds and feeding geese rather than learning magic. Then Suli learns about the shapeshifting.

Just as Suli starts to understand the difference between the kinds of magic, an evil witch on the mountain kidnaps Tala. With the help of two of the geese and a pair of crows charged with teaching her crow magic, Suli must figure out how to help her mentor. It seems as if there are only two choices; exchange herself as a hostage and become a witch herself, or figure out how to kill the witch.

Suli starts off as a character who sees things in simple black and white terms While she uses magic to compel the bullies, she still insists she would turn in a real witch to the Witch Examiners who routinely come through the countryside and hang women they have defined as witches. As the story progresses, she begins to learn that life is not simple. It is a delight to watch Suli grow through this story.

I loved the talking animals and the descriptions of the countryside. The mystery of Suli’s family unfolds slowly. The witch’s motivation for being what she is rang true to me.

And, of course, the crows were my favorites!

Forest’s language is not condescending, but it is right for the age group. I guess that odd old term, “deceptively simple” comes into play here. Forest gets the words to do whatever she needs them to, and the descriptions are lovely, but she doesn’t engage in dense internal monologues or beautiful, complex meandering sentences for their own sake. This language is right for the age group (and an adult) without writing down to anyone.

The world felt concrete with for me a strong northern European flavor. Forest doesn’t forget that people need infrastructure to live; without making it a big part of the plot she shows us that there is a local mill and a miller, for instance, and weavers.

One or two names glitched for me, but I seriously doubt a YA reader would care even if they noticed.

All in all I thought this was a delightful read and I think kids of both sexes between eleven and fourteen would be immersed in it.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

It’s now April, and I’ve read many good books since January, but Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing still stands out as one of the best this year. The story is filled with authentic, complicated people, some of whom are dead. There are ghosts here, plenty of them, but I won’t say the book “has an element of the supernatural,” because that implies a divide between the ghost and the “natural” world. They are clearly part of the world. They may be scary, but their needs and motivations are sharp and clear. They are as real as the gun a white cop points at the head of a Black thirteen-year-old boy.

Ward uses shifting points of view, including those of ghosts, to tell her story. The plot is basically a road trip, as just-turned-thirteen-year-old JoJo and his three-year-old sister Kayla set off with their neglectful mother Leonie to pick up their father Michael. Michael, a white meth-cooker, is being released from prison.

Leonie is incapable of providing the basic necessities for her children, or of showing them love, though JoJo and Kayla are well taken care of by Leonie’s parents. That robust safety net has begun to fray, though, as JoJo’s grandmother deals with cancer.

Like his grandmother, JoJo has abilities. He can understand animals and speak with ghosts. As the story progresses we see that Kayla has these abilities too. It gives them information they both need, but it makes them vulnerable. Leonie may have had this same talent but has shut the door on it. While she thirsts for her children’s love, (she resents it when her “baby girl” turns toward JoJo for comfort and not her) none of her love can flow anywhere but towards Michael.

Ward’s prose is lyrical without ever being flowery, and the story is grounded, gritty and real. The measure of her skill and hard work, as a writer, shows best in the character of Leonie. From early in the book all of my judgments kicked in as I watched this neglectful woman. She sets off on a two-day road trip with no food for her children; when Kayla gets sick on the road, Leonie’s attempt to use herbs to heal her goes wrong because Leonie can’t remember which leaves to use in the tisane she brews. At one point she muses, without actually saying it, that both JoJo and Kayla are too dark, and maybe a third child with Michael “would be perfect.”

Along the way, though, we learn that Leonie’s brother Given was murdered by an envious white boy and the town covered it up, calling it a hunting accident. We see that her love for Michael is both real and reciprocated. By the end of the book I not only understood Leonie, I had some sympathy, not just pity, for her and her choices. We also learn that part of what drew her to Michael was that he was the only person who would tell her the truth about Given.

Pop, JoJo’s grandfather, is the tower of strength throughout the book, but a ghost JoJo meets at the prison opens a window on a dark incident in Pop’s past. These characters are not symbols, they are people, with both good and bad in their pasts, who make choices that aren’t always good… or, at least, are the least-worst in a bad situation. And in the end, they muddle through. JoJo and Kayla are not abandoned even though their lives are hard. They are loved and they know it.

I’ve really only talked about one element of the book. The aspect of the ghosts, and the theme that injustice might breed ghosts, would fill another column. I recommend this book. I especially recommend it for people who did not grow up Black in the rural US south. We need this context. We need this book.

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Dive Into Wroldbuilding

Tomorrow, March 27, at 4:00 pm Pacific time I will be a guest on Juliette Wade’s Dive Into Worldbuilding program, available via blogspot. Here’s a link, where you can see some previous  episodes.

Juliette is an anthropologist, a linguist and a write whose short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, LIghtspeed and in the anthology Strange California. I’m honored to share a Table of Contents with her.

I assume (I didn’t ask) that she had someone fall out of her scheduled programming but I’m delighted to be asked to participate. I have no idea what I’m going to talk about yet, so I’m trying to prepare a list of things that won’t be droningly boring. These include:

–Prohibition. I just finished a general fiction short story about two sisters during Prohibition. The husband of the younger sister is a hotelier who makes occasional trips to Canada and brings back whisky.  I’ve also written two stories with magic set during Prohibition.

–Vallejo/Mare Island, since my Work in Progress (that’s what I’m calling it anyway; I haven’t looked at it in months) is set there. Mare Island is a deep vein of interesting stuff, from the shipbuilding to the nuclear submarines; from the Port Chicago Disaster and subsequent Mutiny to the realpolitik base closure; to its reemergence.

–County Government and public assistance, a topic I know about even if my knowledge is dated.

–Book reviewing, Fantasy Literature, and producing a weekly column.

Juliette and I did a sound check this afternoon. It was nerve-wracking to connect because Google decided to be obstructive, but we managed. I’ll let you all know how it goes!





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A Wrinkle in Time

I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time so much. It was not a movie made from my A Wrinkle in Time. A Wrinkle in Time was read to me by my fourth-grade teacher before I read it myself. We were still in the first Cold War. The tropes and images were from the fifties and sixties. I didn’t expect to see that version of A Wrinkle in Time on the big screen.

(I didn’t expect it, but the creepy suburb scene was absolutely perfect.)

Ava Duvernay’s updating worked beautifully for me. Certainly I had quibbles and things I sadly missed. Here are a few; I missed the flying horse (or were they unicorns?) and the oxygen flower-cups. I missed the fall foliage of the original rural setting and the idea of a house in the woods.

(I have since decided that the “reason” for the Southern California location was that Mom and Dad Murray work for NASA and report to JPL which is in Pasadena. But still… really?)

There were things that were done better than a literal picturing from the book would have; the depiction of It (now re-named “The It.” Thanks, Stephen King), the tesseract; the white room.

Storm Reid as Meg and Deric McCabe playing Charles Wallace both deliver strong, realistic performances as the young leads, but this movie, like the book, is Meg’s, and Reid is brilliant. She is wounded, questioning, defiant, thoughtful and analytical. Moments of joy break through before she remembers that her father is missing, and she falls back into sullen silence. Her stubbornness, and her love of her family, carry her though, and Reid made me believe every moment of it.

The three “Mrs” are delightful fun. The pleasant surprise for me was Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who. This is not an actor I’ve seen in other roles, and she completely delivered.  Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Mr. and Mrs. Murray were fine, but their roles were small (and I can’t help noticing that in neither case was it “doctor.”) Levi Miller was an attractive Calvin but Calvin is basically support for Meg, so he didn’t show off a lot of acting chops here because he didn’t have to.

I haven’t heard much controversy about this; I liked the addition of the bullying character of Veronica. I thought her role and the revelation about her let us see that Meg’s growth extended beyond her family. Nicely done.

One thing I didn’t like as much, and this may be controversial. In the book, science was important. L’Engle was a deeply spiritual and religion woman who believed absolutely in science and she saw no contradiction between those two things. In the book, the first time we see Mrs. Murray she is conducting an experiment. She is as much a scientist as her husband. While that’s implied here, Mrs. Murray’s role as a scientist is downplayed for that of conventional Loving Mother and second-banana. While Mr. Murray shows Meg experiments and hangs out in a coolly-appointed lab, the science is underplayed. While he searches for “the frequency” that will wrinkle time, he only discovers it when his heart is filled with love. “Love is the frequency” should be a bumper sticker, not a major plot point. At the end, Mr. Murray apologizes to Meg for putting his desire to “shake hands with the universe” ahead of his family, as if that what’s he did. He didn’t. He did an experiment that had unexpected consequences. (In fact, it looks as if he wasn’t even conducting experiments at the point the tesseract activated; it’s not clear.) At no time in the few scenes with him before he’s sucked out into the universe do we get any sense of a neglectful father.

On the bright side, Meg uses science at least once and maybe twice in the movie to solve problems, and I liked that very much. I just wish the end had not succumbed to the tired old either-or that we seem to insist on in this country; science or faith, career or family. It gets in the way of a society where institutions of faith welcome robust science and families are supported and celebrated by the professions. That’s not a really a critique of the movie, though, is it?

This movie is aimed at young viewers. When I saw it, there was not a single child in the theater and everyone was over fifty by my estimation. We were reaching back for our childhoods. This would be a great film to see with kids. For those who grumbled that the story wasn’t deep enough and not morally complex enough, I would say, it’s a movie for kids. It’s about a girl who misses her father and will face anything in the universe to find him, and the beings who help her. Meg is not as smart as Charles Wallace. She thinks she is not pretty; she’s in trouble at school, she describes herself as “messy,” but she is honest, she is strong and she fights for what she loves. And I loved that.

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The Last Jedi. I Yawned.

Spoiler Warning.

Somewhere sort of near the end of The last Jedi, a group of rust-bucket desert speeders face off against a bushel of First Order war-machines; fliers, walkers, storm troopers, plus a big old thing called a battering ram cannon*.

Desperate but resolute, the rebels drive toward the enemy, over a white crystalline surface that turns crimson when it’s touched. They drive toward the enemy and we see an aerial shot with sprays and arabesques of crimson; they drive toward the enemy and Kylo Ren watches from somewhere, probably a walker; they drive toward the enemy looking frightened; they drive toward the enemy whose big walkers and stuff  are backlit against the skyline, they drive toward the enemy with another aerial shot, they drive toward the enemy and dear God isn’t this movie over yet?

Basically, that sums up my impression of The Last Jedi.

I expected some things from the second movie of the third trilogy, or Chapter 8, or whatever you want to call this offering in this franchise. I did not expect to be bored.

There were definitely things I liked. Here’s a list. It’s a long list.

I liked:

  • Rey’s story.
  • Luke Skywalker’s character arc. This rang true and made his final act heroic and triumphant, even if basically all he did was say “Neener-neener-neener” to Kylo Ren.
  • Yoda’s short scene. I laughed.
  • General Organa, Jedi.
  • Laura Dern’s hair.
  • Rose. I liked how we learned her history and why she is so committed to the rebellion.
  • Adam Driver, who delivers a committed performance despite the fact that his character, in an unusual arc, is devolving from a complex villain to a loose bundle of stereotypes.
  • The racehorse creatures.
  • The crystal foxes. If the crystal foxes got their own movie, I’d watch it.
  • Phasma. She’s shiny and I like shiny things.
  • Finn and Rose’s mission (which will end up on both lists).
  • The stable-children.
  • The final scene.

Oh, and I loved the dedication.

There were some things I didn’t like:

Finn and Rose’s mission, which is doomed to failure from the start, and merely re-treads a bunch of tropes from other movies. A casino planet! A set piece where the casino is destroyed! I’ve only seen that about sixty times before. It’s okay to re-use tropes, but you better do something fresh. Nothing was new here except Rose and Finn.

Dameron Poe. Poe spends the movie being a weird hybrid of glory-hound and complete ass, only to Learn a Valuable Lesson at the end. (Yawn.)

The forty-seven space battles. Okay, there weren’t really forty-seven. There couldn’t be (could there?) It just seemed like forty-seven.

The light-saber Gene-Kelly-style dance off in Snoke’s red throne room. Hey, Snoke, do you do your own interior design? It shows. Speaking of Snoke…

Snoke. This is your villain? Really? There must be a big bad somewhere offscreen, pulling the strings, but this guy is just Emperor Lite. When Rey gives herself up, I was waiting for him to say, “Greetings, young Skywalker…” We’re supposed to believe Snoke is a powerful person on the Dark Side because he… manipulated an emo teenager? Oh, come on. And speaking of Snoke–

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Adam Driver is doing a good job with a character who is eroding out from under him due to bad storytelling and terrible writing. In the first movie, Ren’s parentage and his commitment to the First Order made him a compelling character. His strange fixation on his grandfather was creepy and weird in a good way. In an early scene in Jedi, he comes out wearing a homemade version of the Vader mask. He doesn’t look evil. He looks, well, like a fourteen-year-old cosplaying. Later, in the space of one scene, Ren falls from being a bad person with a genuine conflict to a two-dimensional Bad Boyfriend when he says to Rey, “You are nothing. But not to me.” Later, we get a two-year-old grade tantrum when he confronts Luke Skywalker.


My biggest sense, when the credits rolled, was boredom and a feeling of two-and-a-half hours wasted. I’ll admit, I did pick up a book and read a couple of chapters while it was on, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

I realized, at some point in between nit-picking set design and rolling my eyes, that I am no longer the right audience for this movie. Unlike most people of my Star Wars generation, I am not interested in Leia, Luke, their story and their family issues. I’m interested in Rey. I don’t want to see the old scenes from the original three (Chapters Four thru Six). I want to see new scenes. I don’t want to watch a handful of people who only know how to be rebels and apparently can’t govern. I want to see people who struggle to make things right for the non-human races they’ve been treating as second-class citizens. I want to see people for whom “doing the right thing” is more constructive than just blowing up The Other Guy’s space ship. Clearly I don’t belong in this world, where no one knows how to govern and everyone only knows how to fight.


*The rebels had to open the giant metal door that is, we are told, the only way in or out of the rebel hidey-hole, to bring out the speeders, but for some reason, the First Order saw no urgent need to blast a couple dozen incendiaries into the stronghold while the door was open. They do, however, fire the “battering ram cannon” at it later.

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This is my original work. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote from it, give me credit.

Commentary:  I think I do achieve the illusion of a non-human main character in this fantasy story. It’s one of my favorites because I like crows. If I were going to revise it, I would tighten up the flow of the story; the main character flies to the mountain a few too many times and I would sharpen the other descriptions. I think this is a good story; it I cut 750 words from it, it might be very good. But I’m not doing that today.


Before today, Ragged has never seen a Climber. She has heard about them, in the softly muttered stories the clan tells after sunset, when she and her brother Whitelick snuggle down in the feathers and twigs of their nest. Now a Climber is swarming up the tree where her brother sits alone, crying out for their mother and father.

The rest of the clan sounds the alarm. Ragged clings to her branch, krrraw-raw, kra-raw-rawing at her brother to fly. He climbs to the edge of the nest, teetering, then hops back down inside, calling.

Ragged has only flown twice before. On her trial flight she landed in a thorn tree, earning her name. Whitelick still has not flown. He is younger than she is, and the last streaks of yellow are only now fading from his beak. He does not know what to do.

The Climber pauses, clinging to a low branch with one featherless talon. Ragged’s mother flies at its head. On the ground, another one of the flightless watches. It stoops, picks up a stone and throws it, striking Ragged’s mother under her wing. Ragged launches herself at the flightless on the ground. She extends her talons and strikes at the shining grass-green pelt that covers its back. It is slick and her talons don’t grip. She slides. The flightless twists around and dashes her aside with the tall straight branch it carries, knocking her into a tree trunk.  She hops into the shadow of a cypress, calling in distress.

The Climber has reached the nest. Ragged makes three hops and flaps her wings. It is a steep climb, not the kind of flight she has done before, and by the time she reaches the nest her brother is gone. The Climber is halfway down the tree. Ragged’s mother flails on a branch too slender for her weight, cawing the alarm again. Ragged grips the edge of the nest, fluttering her wings, and stares down at the upturned face of the Climber. Its crown is covered with plumage as black as Ragged’s own wings. The other flightless swings the branch at Ragged’s uncle, as he dives and circles, calling out challenges. Beneath his cries she hears her brother calling.

Both flightless run across the clearing to where a pair of four-leggeds stand waiting. They climb atop the four-leggeds and urge them away from the grove of trees. Ragged follows them. She wants to call encouragement to Whitelick, but she is too tired – and afraid, afraid the flightless with the billowing green pelt will hit her again.

It is the longest flight she has made. Her wings ache, and the line of her glide drops, as the four-leggeds run along the river. Her heart races in her chest. They stop at a stone wall and Ragged lights on its top, panting. This is the nesting place of the flightless. She knows of it from the stories.

She cannot rest for long, because the four-leggeds pass through the wall and walk along a broad and shallow canyon lined with cliffs made of wood and many kinds of stone. Ragged swoops ahead of them and lands on the top of one of the cliffs. The flat rust-red stone surface, traced with gold and brown, is warm against her feet. The four-leggeds stop, and the flightless climb off them. Another flightless comes and leads the first set of animals away. Ragged hears Whitelick call from beneath the flapping green pelt. She calls back to him, but Whitelick doesn’t answer. The flightless go inside a tall narrow mountain and Ragged cannot hear them.

That night in the cypress grove, the clan gathers. They share stories about other places where the bad things happened. The clan decides that it will leave this place. They will not be back until Ragged’s children’s children are grown. Ragged’s father murmurs to her mother, stroking her head with his beak. Ragged huddles alone in the bottom of the nest. She is too young to speak at the gathering.

At dawn, Ragged does not leave the nest.  Her mother perches on its edge, bobbing and cawing, but Ragged doesn’t answer, burrowing into the dark blue down lining the bottom. The clan wheels above their tree, calling and scolding. As the sun grows higher, they tilt their wings and fly away west, all except Ragged.

She stays until the sun is high in the sky and spills warmth down through the dark green branches onto her back. She pokes her head over the edge of the nest and calls for her brother. He does not answer. Ragged hops up onto the rim and takes flight, back to the nesting place of the flightless, back to the narrow mountain that holds her brother. Hunger drives her to the ground outside the wall, where she searches and pecks until she finds a few stray seeds. Then she flies over the wall into the nesting place.

Flightless are very busy, like ants, and there are a lot of them. Ragged circles the mountain and calls for her brother, with no luck. She follows a trail of the flightless to another set of stone hills, a nesting place within the nesting place. Here are many more four-leggeds like the ones the flightless rode, although these have flapping hides the deep red of dried blood marked with sun-gold. She watches from a post, sees another cluster of flightless that look like Climber with their drab brown hides, and swoops along behind them until she finds a huge midden, filled with softening meat, sour fruit, guano, scraps of plants, stale bread and scores of juicy worms, grubs and maggots.

None of the flightless notice her as she lands and feasts. She hops about, cocking a head to the sky to keep watch for Climber or the flightless with the green pelt, but she manages to eat her fill. She takes to the air again, the breeze lofting her up, and circles the mountain again, calling for Whitelick.

She can hear him faintly as she comes around canyon-side. The cries get louder. She caws back. Beneath her she sees a narrow ledge and lands there. There is a hole in the side of the mountain, big enough for Ragged and another to fit through easily, but it is cloudy. She pokes at it. Her beak bounces off its rippled surface. Beyond that barrier Whitelick calls to her. It is his frightened call. She pokes harder at the barrier, kok-kok, kok-kok. Whitelick squawks an alarm and she startles up, sheering away to the right as the barrier shifts and vanishes. The flightless has shed its green pelt, and shows a crown as gray as a gull’s. Its lower face is covered with wiry, curly feathers, so it must be a male. Ragged lands on the roof across the canyon and folds her wings, pressing herself into the shadow. The flightless leans out and looks up, then down. He pulls his head back inside, but when Ragged lands again on the ledge, the barrier is back in place and she cannot get in.

For seven days Ragged watches, eating at the midden, dodging the hooves of the four-leggeds, some of which do not have glowing red-and-gold hides but are brown and white and wander in a clan. She dodges sudden showers of stinking water that fall without warning from the walls of the canyons. She dodges rocks and clumps of manure that are thrown at her and faces down the scrawny cats that crouch and growl when she marches by.

Often she flies, high above the nesting place. It is shaped a bit like her own shadow, but lacks a wing where it hugs the shimmering curve of the river. The broad canyon divides the nesting place almost in half. Four-leggeds pulling moving platforms, and four-leggeds carrying flightless, go through the wall at three spots. Beyond the wall, the fields where the clan used to feed on worms and bugs are green and gold now, filled with unripe seeds and fruit.

At the river, the flightless carry glistening curves of fish up from floating nests. Ragged lights, tears off scraps of gleaming flesh and flies up to nooks in the buildings to savor their succulence. She drinks from the edge of the river, watching for flightless and for the large rats that live there. She learns how to steal fruit and other food from the places where the flightless congregate. She sees Climber come out of the mountain every day. Sometimes Climber brings in buckets of water, or an armload of wood. Sometimes it brings back food, and often it takes a black cloth bag to the midden, where it dumps scraps of food and other things.

Gray Crown molts frequently; sometimes his pelt is grass-green and sometimes a dull whitish-gray. Once, while he is walking in the canyon, a flightless female passes him. Two fledglings caper and call at her side. He stops and bends toward one of them. The female hustles her chicks away from him, wings outspread in warning.

Usually, when the sun is high in the sky, Gray Crown comes out of the mountain, clinging with both talons to the branch he carries. He walks along the canyon to a widening-place filled with colors. Ragged watches him from the cliff tops, perched on the warm flat stones. Flightless gather in groups, as active as the colony of grubs her mother once uncovered by moving a rock. They chatter constantly. They scold, murmur, display, and gather food. The widening place is filled with piles of things; dark red berries, soft orange fruits, carcasses of animals that look strange to Ragged at first because they have no hides, chickens and geese tethered to the legs of the flightless or to things that look like the narrow trunks of trees. Small birds with violet wings flutter back and forth in nests made of metal. The branches of the nests look like thorn trees, and they meet at the top. The widening place has bowls of grain, bowls of fire and bowls of food on sticks that the flightless often drop while they are eating; rivers and pools of hides and plumage, grass-green, sky-blue and water-blue, stone-white and stone-gray, the dark blue of her own nestling down.

There are many gathering places within the widening-place. Gray Crown is often driven away from those places. The elders squawk and wave their wings, and he abases himself and slinks away. He sits in a sunny corner near the wall, with a flat rock in front of him. Flightless come to him and give him metal disks, some that gleam silver, some that shine sun-gold, some that are gray or nearly black. The other flightless sit facing Gray Crown. Gray Crown has a packet of skins. They are as big as his talons, regularly shaped, with colors and shapes on them. Gray Crown sets a number of skins on the ground, pointing to them and then to the seated flightless as he grumbles and caws. The other flightless cocks its head, or nods, or turns its head back and forth as if trying to see better.

Later, when he goes back to the gathering places, he is sometimes allowed in. When he comes out he sidles and droops. At these times, Climber often appears, supporting his weight as they walk home to the mountain. He staggers as if he is hurt, and Climber coos to him like a mother to her fledgling.

The moon is a full white circle dripping light onto the top of the canyon. Ragged roosts in a niche in the wall. Sometimes she calls, like a nestling, for her mother and father. Other nights she grumbles herself to sleep.

One day in the widening-place, Gray Crown takes one of his metal disks and goes to the flightless who keeps the little birds in the metal nests. The flightless opens a side of the nest. Gray Crown takes out a bird and puts it into a black cloth bag. As the sun drops below the wall of the nesting place, other flightless drift away, but Gray Crown waits, pacing back and forth, while Ragged watches. He murmurs to himself. Drab flightless come by and put fire onto long sticks that jut out of the wall. Gray Crown paces his territory.

A group of five flightless appears from one of the many narrow ravines that join the canyon. They all have pelts of dark red and gold. Four of them carry a strange box as large as they are. They stop in front of Gray Crown. The fifth flightless scurries to the side of the box and pushes aside the rippling cover. Another flightless climbs down out of the box. It is a female whose pelt is red and gold as well. Her red crown plumage flows forward and hides her face. Gray Crown abases himself. The fifth flightless sets a block of wood on the ground, and the female perches on it. Gray Crown crouches, his head bobbing. He spreads a piece of cloth on the ground. Ragged hops along the wall to a place where she can see better.

Gray Crown brings out the black bag and a black cutting tool. Ragged has heard stories of the metal cutting tools the flightless use because they have no beaks. He opens the bag and draws out the struggling little bird. With one talon he gives its neck a twist. He cuts it open. Blood runs over his hand. He spreads its guts on the cloth and bends over them. He mutters and grumbles and waves his talon. The female makes short sharp calls, and Gray Crown murmurs back, pointing and gesturing. They stare at the smooth, glistening clumps of meat but neither of them eats. The female rises and goes back to the box. The fifth flightless helps her climb inside. He turns and tosses three disks of sun-gold to Gray Crown. Gray Crown scoops them up. He folds up the cloth and carries it away.

In the dark, Ragged flies down to the spot to see if there is anything left. There are spots of blood, but he has carried the guts away and there is nothing here to eat.

Each day the sun rises a little earlier. When she visits the midden in the morning, tendrils of steam twist up from the holes she digs. More and more often, when she lights on the ledge, the barrier is cracked. Often Climber bustles around inside, and sometimes Gray Crown skulks by the opening, scratching with a stick on a piece of skin or turning over the shape-and-color skins and muttering. Sometimes Ragged can see Whitelick, but she dares not speak to him.

On the eighth day when she lands on the ledge there is no barrier. She bounces to the threshold of the hole and peers inside. There are no flightless that she can see. Across the cave-like space, Whitelick huddles in the bottom of a nest made of thorn branches like the ones in the gathering place. Whitelick’s once-bright feathers look dull. He sees her and straightens up, cawing. She grumbles, deep in her throat, and steps back onto the ledge. No flightless come forward at the sound of her brother’s call, and he falls silent, sidling up to the ring of thorn branches.

Ragged hops across the threshold onto a wide wooden surface that runs along one wall of the cave, clear over to where her brother’s nest hangs from the wall. Between the wooden plain and the nest, a deep hollow in the wall holds ashes. In the middle of the wooden surface sits a black bowl. Ragged peers into it and sees a bright eye above a sharp beak peering back at her.

Next to the black bowl sits a narrow wooden box.  She taps at it. From inside comes a hollow plonking. She cannot open the box. On top of the box is the cutting tool. She taps at it, too. It is not metal. It is black stone, its scalloped edge lined with dried blood.

She hops closer to the thorn branch nest. At the edge of the wooden surface, she sees a stick of silver metal. It is shaped like the twigs her mother would fashion to tease grubs out of cracks.

Ragged flutters over to the nest and lights on it. Her talons slip on the slick metal branches and she begins to slide. She flaps her way up, only to slide down again. Her talon rolls over a knot in the branch, and then a second one. Whitelick taps on a block of metal across from the two knots she just found.  Ragged tugs and tugs at the thorn branches. They give slightly, but do not move. The nest will not open the way the nest in the widening-place did.

Whitelick pokes his head through two of the branches and bobs up and down. Ragged glides back to the wooden surface, and he grows more vehement. She looks at the silver metal twig, and Whitelick toks. She picks it up. Her head tilts to one side as she drags it along the surface. She flies to the nest. The twig chimes when it strikes the branches. There is a hole in the block Whitelick poked at. Ragged turns her head and fits the end of the twig into the hole. The twig hangs unmoving.

Air rushes in from the hole by the ledge, and Whitelick sounds an alarm. A flightless is screaming, rushing toward her.

Ragged flies to the top of the nest, clinging to the ring that joins it to the wall. The flightless, Gray Crown, swats at her. The nest tilts and spins. Ragged holds fast to the top, flapping her wings for balance. Whitelick lunges forward and stabs at Gray Crown’s talon. The flightless yells and lifts his tall branch. Whitelick beats his wings against the nest, shrilling a challenge.

Ragged bounds off the top of the spinning nest, landing in front of the wooden box. The branch hisses down and she jumps again, catching the edge of the black bowl. It tips and reddish water spills across the wood. The branch crashes down onto the narrow wooden box. The box pops open and the objects inside roll partway out. There are four of them, glossy and egg-shaped, ending with long twin shafts jutting out of the front. They range in color from dark yellow to the creamy beige of a chicken egg. Through their vacant eye-holes, Ragged can see the spreading pool of pale red water. The beaks of two of the skulls are still yellow, the sign of a young bird, younger even than Whitelick.

Ragged shrieks. She hurls herself out of the hole, cawing an alarm. She flies as fast as she can, all the way back to the grove, keening, and hides in her old nest. She ruffles up her feathers and calls for her mother, for her father. She krraw-krraw-krraws danger. She calls all night, but no one comes. The clan has flown west.

The next day the barrier is back. Beyond it, she hears Whitelick. Ragged perches across from the mountain. Climber comes out with a basket of cloth, and Climber watches the skies as she walks to the river. Ragged watches her.

The next day, the barrier has a slim crack in it. A four-legged, draped in dark red and sun-gold, prances down the canyon, a flightless atop it. The flightless is pelted in the same bright colors. The four-legged stops in front of the mountain. The flightless goes inside. Ragged glides across to the barrier and peers through the crack. She presses on the barrier but the crack will not widen.

Climber and Gray Crown abase themselves before the bright-pelt flightless, whose talons gleam with shiny things. The bright-pelted one stands in front of the nest that holds Whitelick, and it and Gray Crown chortle back and forth. Gray Crown comes over to the wooden surface. He points to the black bowl and the cutting tool. The bright-pelted one takes the tool in its talons, touches the edge, and nods.  Gray Crown picks up a stick and scratches something on a piece of skin that is held at each corner with a smooth stone. Bright-pelt draws from one of its talon a loop of sun-gold metal with a stone in it. It slips this shiny thing onto a string and hands it to Gray Crown. It gestures and points again to Whitelick. Gray Crown bobs his head. Gray Crown and Climber lower their torsos and bow their heads as Bright-pelt leaves.

The moon shrinks. The days grow warmer. Boats bring more piles of food to the widening place. Flightless from other territories trail in through the wall. From their pelts there must be many different varieties. Ragged collects shiny things from the flightless and carries them to her perch in the wall’s niche.

One day Ragged flies up to the mountain’s top. It is steep and her talons slide on the black stones. Near the peak there is a narrow hole in the roof, like the gap in a hollow tree. From here, Ragged can hear Whitelick. She knows stories of brave ones who flew into hollow trees and were rewarded with eggs and shiny things. She walks around the hole. She peers inside. Deep below there is a glimmer of light. Ragged caws once. She walks all the way around the hole again before Whitelick answers. She jumps up on the rim and peers down, her beak between her talons. The hole is too narrow for flight. Ragged drops down onto the flat stones and paces around the hole again, murmuring in her throat as she walks. She hops to the edge of the mountain, then turns and walks back. Finally, she hops down into the hole and slides, rocks scraping her feathers and tugging them upward. She lands with a pouf and a fine spray of gray dust explodes around her. She sneezes. She shakes herself, sending ash flying.

She clambers out onto the rocks. From across the cave, the flightless growls, and she freezes, head cocked. Silence. He growls again. He sounds no closer. Whitelick scrabbles at the branches of the nest. Growl, silence, growl. She steps forward, looking away from her brother’s metal nest. Gray Crown lies in a corner across the cave. He is turned away from her. Growl, silence, growl. One talon hangs rests on his flank and from it dangles the string and the shiny thing. Near his feet his green pelt lies in a shimmering pool.

Ragged flies up to the wooden surface. The barrier is in place. She goes over to it. Along one side, a rectangular stick is wedged through two U-shaped pieces of wood. She studies it, picks at the stick. It moves and the barrier rattles gently. Ragged pushes up the stick. Air flows past her, swirling ash off her feathers, as the barrier cracks and swings toward her.

She hops back down to the floor and waddles across to where the flightless lies, still growling. Behind her, Whitelick clicks a question, but she does not answer. The bright stone, the coloring of a lowering sun, winks. She lofts and flaps her wings twice, closing the distance. Gray Crown grunts, then starts the growling again.

Ragged grips the string with her beak, tugs it free and with a long backwards hop lands halfway across the cave floor. The shiny stone drags along the floor, catching in the dusty dried rushes. She flies up to the wooden surface, the stone tinkling against the edge.

Gray Crown snorts. He does not move.

She edges closer to the opening in the wall. She waits. Then she ruffles her feathers, and, as fiercely as her mother, she kar-ar-ars a challenge.

Gray Crown rolls over. He stares into the center of the room with eyes that are only half open. Ragged spreads her wings and dances, dragging the shiny thing across the wood. He stares at her. He springs to his feet, calls a challenge, and staggers towards her. She flies out the hole and into the sunlight.

She circles the mountain once, cawing, the shiny stone hurling rays of orange light onto the rock. When she comes around, Gray Crown has run outside. He scans the sky. Climber comes out behind him. As she flies across the sky above him, he pushes Climber ahead of him, squawking and cawing.

Ragged flies above the canyon with her prize, aw-aw-awing victory, the sunstone flashing with each wing-beat. In the widening place, the flightless look up. They point and caw in response. Gray Crown pushes through the crowds of bright-colored flightless. Ragged clears the wall. The pendulum weight of the shiny thing pulls her down but she is nearly to the river before she drops it.

She cuts back, swooping back over the wall, silent now, over the head of Gray Crown as he shoves Climber away, waving his wing. The Climber turns and runs back toward the mountain.

Ragged pumps her wings. She nearly overshoots the ledge, skidding over it, before she leaps across the threshold. The metal twig is not next to the black bowl anymore. She knocks over bottles filled with colored liquid, blues and violets, oranges and greens, sends the packet of skins with their shapes and colors swirling down onto the rushes, pushes the cutting tool onto the floor. She roots among the glittery objects until she finds the twig tucked into a corner. She picks it up and flies to the metal nest. She splays her legs as far as she can, gripping the branches with her talons. The twig slips easily into the hole. She jiggles it with her beak but nothing happens. From inside, Whitelick reaches through the branches and grips the twig with his beak, turning his head. He isn’t strong enough alone, but Ragged helps him, and with a “click” the branches part and a gap appears, widening, swinging Ragged to one side.

Climber runs into the cave. She is posturing, leaning forward, whooping. Her face is nearly as red as a vulture’s. She stands near the place where Gray Crown lay growling. Her whoops grow longer and softer.

Whitelick leaps out of the nest after Ragged. He runs across the wood, but stops, shivering, at the threshold. Ragged pokes him.

Climber glances around. She picks up the puddle of green pelt on the floor. Holding it out with both wings, she walks slowly toward them.

Ragged squawks at her brother and pokes him again. He takes ones step forward, but only one. No more. She turns to Climber, extends her wings and krraw-raw-krraw-raws.   Climber stops. Her gaze bounces between Whitelick and Ragged, back and forth, back and forth. Her wings, outstretched with the green pelt wide between them, drop slightly.

Ragged spins. She jabs her brother hard, krrraw-raw, kra-raw-rawing, and shoves him. Whitelick slides onto the ledge and falls. He shrieks. His wings open and with short, frantic strokes he flies across the canyon and lands on the roof. Ragged follows.

Climber stays by the hole. She watches them for a moment, and then the barrier is back in place.

Ragged leads Whitelick to the midden, where he eats and eats. As it grows darker he follows her. He starts to fly over the wall, but Ragged guides him along it until they find her sleeping place in the niche. From Ragged’s sleeping place they can see Gray Crown, who keens as he scavenges through the weeds by the water.

Whitelick calls for their mother and father, but there is no one. Ragged grooms her brother with her beak and murmurs to him the way their father used to. They fall asleep cuddled together like chicks.

In the morning, she flies with him back to the midden. Whitelick stops to rest twice, but his wing-strokes are stronger after he has eaten and they grow stronger each day.

The early-rising sun gleams off the bend in the river each morning, waking them, and they fly to the midden. Whitelick’s strength returns and soon they both soar above the nesting place and explore the fields beyond the wall. When the warm sun is high overhead, they fly back across the wall. Curving wide around Gray Crown’s mountain, they perch on the wall, watching the flightless in the widening place, chuckling to themselves.

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Eating My Way Through FOGCon

Part of the pleasure of a speculative fiction convention, along with panels and readings, is sitting down with longtime friends and new ones in a bar, a cafe or a restaurant. My title makes it sound like I was a human vacuum-cleaner who spent three days hoovering up snacks, and that isn’t accurate, but I had some good meals with good company.

Oatmeal at breakfast is a better value in the dining room, but there is something to be said for convenience.

Expensive but convenient

The Walnut Creek Marriott is the venue for FOGCon and has been for several years. The hotel is a good partner; it takes care of problems quickly, it offers a good convention rate, and the convention rooms are nice. It has a great bar. It has an adequate restaurant, the Atrio, that excels at breakfast, including a breakfast buffet which looks good. I’ve never actually tried it because I can pay less for a good breakfast ordering off the menu. Last year, though, my final day there, I watched as a Utah-based high school baseball team who was in for a regional game got their money’s worth from the buffet.

That said, I did have dinner there the first night. The service, which is geologically slow, was much better on Thursday night when there were fewer guests. Since a hamburger is something I rarely make at home and something I like, it is often the first thing I order when I’m on a trip. The Atrio has a cheeseburger on the menu that sounds like it would be juicy and tasty and oozing with tangy cheese, balanced by slightly acidic tomatoes and providing general yummy goodness. This is a testament to the Marriott chain’s food writers. I ordered the burger medium rare, but I consider what I got to be medium well. There was no pink, and the meat was dry. The tomato was fine given the time of year, but the bulk of the burger was a slab of iceberg lettuce. I ended up pulling it out of the burger and eating it like salad. The cheddar cheese lacked flavor, although it was  perfectly melted and added a velvety texture and moisture that was lacking in the meat.

On the other hand, the fries were delicious. I had their version of a Moscow mule with my meal, and it was very good.

A group of us had planned to go out on Friday night. The composition of the group

I didn't get this woman's permission, but I don't think she's identifiable. I love the light, and her contrast to the poster.

Unknown woman, Caffe LaScala

changed somewhat because of schedule conflicts, but ultimately five of us went to Caffee LaScala, on North Main. La Scala is sort of an upscale student hangout offering salads, paninis, soups and specials, coffee drinks and scrumptous desserts. I have whined many times on this blog about my goal to reduce the number of sugary coffee drinks I have, and Friday was a day I was letting myself have one. I ordered a mocha and La Scala did not disappoint. I had a canoli with it. The pastry cream filling was accented with candied orange peel that gave a great pop of flavor, and contrasted beautifully with the dark chocolate inside the roll. The pastry itself was a little tough. I chose a Caesar salad for my entree and I was delighted. The romaine was crunchy and fresh and the dressing had just enough tang. I didn’t pay good attention to entrees but I did notice that Laura Davey had my fantasy-choice, a brie panini. Next time I go there… I did notice the desserts; Terry had a Napoleon because she is practicing for her upcoming trip to Paris; Laura Blackwell had a dessert that looked like a cross between New York cheesecake and a parfait, since the top was covered with macerated berries. Garrett had chocolate cream puffs (next time I go there…).

At LaScala you order at the counter and they bring your food to your table. We had a longish wait, but we didn’t really care. We had just beaten the rush, and as we waited for our order we watched the order line stretch, snaking through the place.

LaScala has a tiny kitchen, making their output even more miraculous.

There are two good eateries within short walking distance of the hotel. They are both in the same strip mall on Parkside. Because we thought it might rain, on Saturday several of us took the hotel’s shuttle to Kinder’s deli for lunch. They specialize in meat, and excel at sandwiches. This place was packed, and while they have an efficient assembly-line approach to sandwich making, they obviously had a trainee on the line the day we were there. I can report on my turkey sandwich on marbled rye: the bread was fresh, soft and tasty; the turkey was moist and the condiments were not overdone. It was hefty enough that I ate only half of it. Beth had a stuffed twice-baked potato, and next year when I go back that’s the thing I want to try from Kinder’s menu. We talked about the panels, books and Terry’s upcoming trip to France.

Sunday I went to the same mall with fellow panelist Bradford Lyau. We walked. it took about ten minutes to reach Shanghai Gourmet. The restaurant offers tasty food served family style, some dim sum, and a vast menu. Brad is a historian who taught at the professor level; he is an entrepreneur and a political consultant who worked on the HR Clinton campaign in Nevada (Clinton took Nevada).  Brad’s scholarship centered around speculative fiction through history, with an emphasis on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Lunch was great and we saw many people from the convention there.

Con-suite snacks.

Con-suite snacks.

I had one other food-related activity at the Con. Friday morning I helped set up the Con-suite. I have now established that I have a secondary, perhaps marketable skill — I can pour snacks into bowls with a minimum degree of spillage. I am pleased to report that while I only ate one chip, I created this artistic array of sweet, salty, savory, chocolately, fruity and healthy snack.

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Magic; Who Gets to Wield It?

Magic can stand in for a lot of things. It can symbolize trickery and deceit. It can represent art, healing, spectacle; it can be about loss, sacrifice, family and love. In epic fantasy, nearly always, the question about who has magic is nearly always a question of who wields power.

In the US, for the past sixty years most epic fantasies have been what my fellow reviewer Bill Capposere calls Restoration fantasies. Restoration in this case is a concept, not a time period in British history. In these stories, the political status quo is to be maintained or restored. There may be a usurper who needs to be overthrown, but the plucky young rebel with his rogue wizard mentor is not going to introduce a parliamentary system with democratic representation. No, he is going to be revealed as the True Heir. The system is just fine, thank you… we just need the right person at the top. Magic supports and enforces that system. It’s Maintenance mode.

Recently, fantasy writers have started exploring what Disruption fantasies might look like, They really do want to lose the monarchy and try a new system. Still the vast amount of stuff that’s out there is Maintenance mode fantasy and magic is complicit in maintaining the existing system.

Magic is often the weapon of the Good Kingdom, which is fighting an Evil Empire. Story tropes and language clue in-clue us quickly; the Good Kingdom’s practitioners are probably called “wizards,” not “sorcerers,” and they answer to the royal family. The Evil Empire has practitioners who probably sacrifice prisoners or hapless villagers as the source of their power. The power of the Good Kingdon wizards will probably not come from human sacrifice even no it is often exactly the same magic. The causes of the war are rarely addressed, or if they are, the Evil Empire has aggressed for no reason. The purpose of this plot is to allow the writer to engage in lots of battle magic.

Writers like N.K. Jemisin and Robert Jackson Bennett write great magical fantasies that put these old unquestioned assumptions under a bright light. Both question the aftermath of the “triumphant” final battle. How do you rebuild? How do you reassure a demoralized civilian population whose crops you’ve burned by mistake in your magical duel, whose businesses you’ve destroyed and whose families you’ve fractured? And make no mistake, that’s not the enemy’s population we’re talking about. Each of these writers in different ways uses magic to discuss exploitation, colonialism and trauma; trauma not only on a personal level but on a societal level as well.

These are some of the things magic is used for, but it’s nearly a universal that only certain people wield magic.

The Royal Wizard and the Hedge Witch

Wizards often represent a power elite and an educational elite; sometimes even a religious ruling class. There certainly are rogue wizards; “sorcerers” who decide to use their magic for selfish reasons, or who go over the evil for some reasons, and the more sympathetic rogue wizards who have a falling-out with the power elite and strike out on their own. A pretty common example is when the power structure is taken over by a usurper, (usually one with a quasi-legitimate claim, like a regent). The rogue wizard gets a bad feeling about this and heads out to the forest, a top of the mountain or a garret in the city, where he (almost always he) waits to find and assist the True Heir, or the True Heir comes to him for aid. This is still in service to the Maintenance model. Once again, we don’t see a lot of university-trained wizards becoming community organizers who help the dock-workers unionize for safety features and better wages.

If you’re self-taught or nearly self-taught, you are probably a hedge magician. Hedge witches and wizards are local practitioners, often attached to a village or some community. They do healing spells, protect the crops and generally help out. A hedge witch may (usually does in fantasy) choose a servant who really is the person they are initiating.  Just like wizards, hedge-witches can go bad; cursing people and extorting benefits from the townsfolk.

A variation on the hedge witch, nearly always female, is the old woman who lives in the woods. Often this character can wield as much power as a wizard, but she keeps to herself. She often doesn’t choose sides in a dispute, or it might be more accurate to say she’s on her own side.

One of these is homespun and somewhat egalitarian; the other is hierarchical, but they share many elements. One is simply the idea that not everyone is magical.

Everybody Sing!

The idea that magic is rare, limited and only available to the elite smells a little bit like capitalism to me. Or maybe marketing. I’m going to digress a minute. Diamonds are expensive gemstones. For years, diamond sellers have told us they are rare. In fact, they’re just not that rare. The diamond cartel decided in the 1940s to limit the diamond supply so they could drive the price up. Diamonds are so common in fact that millions of them a year are used industrially; no one frets about an industrial diamond shortage.

What if magic isn’t rare? What if you didn’t have to be a Chosen One to use it? What if, in your society, everyone had access to to some of it? It could be like music. You’ d have the rare genuine virtuoso. You’d have the passionate magician who has talent, maybe not a lot of it, but works and trains until by sheer strength of will they succeed; you’d have the charismatic, attractive, slightly talented practitioner who relies on a magic version of Autotune to advance. And you’d have millions of people who do karaoke, hum while they’re folding laundry and sing in the shower. People would get together and create magical experiences communally to commemorate weddings, births, milestones, or just for fun.  Old people would shake their head and say, “I can’t understand a thing they’re doing. I remember when magic was good.” Well, why not? Why wouldn’t that work?

The view of magic for a chosen few dovetails nicely with capitalism and colonialism, and it’s nice to see writers and readers starting to question that.

Lately I’ve come across several books that treat magic in yet a different way; as a dangerous intoxicant.

Just Say No

Since the 1990s, addiction and recovery have been huge themes in fiction, especially genre fiction. Magic is a natural drug. Think about it. It (theoretically) makes you powerful, or at least feel that way. Good magical systems in fiction require some kind of consequence; our general narrative about power is that people can’t handle it. What better metaphor than a practice that you become addicted to, that weakens you as it grows stronger? This has the side benefit of being a great plot device because you can create all kinds of suspense for your magical character.

The addiction theme addresses three things, I think; addiction itself and the ruin it wreaks on the mind and spirit; exploitation; prohibitions against using your own power. If your magic comes from within, there’s a warning not to use too much of it. Whose need is being met by that? If magic comes from an external object of substance, they become ripe for exploitation, just as the practitioner becomes vulnerable to a person who controls a substance. Now we’re back to toxic capitalism. The magician is powerful, gifted, but forced to work for someone who uses their power and talent for their own wealth, while they dole out the magic juice of powder.

What if magic was just one more thing in the world, like persimmons, oxygen or magnetic fields? What if it weren’t carved out? How would that fantasy world look? If we think that you couldn’t write fantasy stories in that world because there is no conflict, I would say we aren’t stretching our imaginations enough. What would those stories be?

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