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 though 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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The Working Rehearsal

Spouse and I listened went to the Sebastopol Library to hear the Santa Rosa Young People’s Chamber Orchestra.  The email notice I got called this event a Dress Rehearsal, but it wasn’t that, as least not by every definition I know. I’d call it working rehearsal, because the lead violin/conductor stopped them at several points, repeatedly, to have them perfect an polish a passage. It wasn’t a concert but it was pretty fascinating.

The first amazing thing was the transformation of this group of mostly teenagers who straggled in, checking their cell phones, sipping their coffee drinks and propping them up on their music stands, into a complex, coordinated music group.
The Young People's Chamber Orchestra

Some of the cellos

Some of the cellos

I don’t know much about the vocabulary of music, and this was like a seminar. Halfway through the first piece, by baroque composer Heinrich Biber. He focused on the first violins, discussing volume and phrasing. It was the first time I’d heard the term “chippy” for bow-work. “I want to sound more… chippy. Not like you’re just sawing with the bow.”

First Violins

First violins

He could tell when one violin came in one/sixteenth too late, or when the cellos were bowing too hard.

The Basses

The basses

I think the community room is not well-designed acoustically for this type of performance, but I could tell the difference between the cohesion and the flow of the sound before and after his tutorials.

The Conductor

The Conductor

We stayed until the first break– they’d made it through two complete pieces.

The performance is Sunday at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma.

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Running in Slow Motion; A Writing Exercise.

My husband and I have this thing we do sometimes where we run toward each other in fake slow motion* –true, silly, very, very dreadfully silly we have been and are, but why will you say that this is bad? — anyway, sometimes we walk together but sometimes we don’t walk together and that’s not a comment on the relationship but more an indication of separate errands and interests and okay, maybe that is about the relationship but not in a bad way because it means we’ve grown and sometimes when he goes out for a walk he turns north at the sidewalk and then later I go out for a walk and I turn south at the sidewalk and sometimes we see each other in the distance in the middle of this loop and we hold out our arms and lift each leg slowly, sloooowyyy and lean forward and set it doooowwnnn and then the other leg slooowly and lean forward and you get the drift; and sometimes we say in a high-pitched voice, “Blake! Blaaay-ke!” because even though we never actually watched this show that was on called Dynasty we did watch it this one time and there was a thunderstorm and the main guy was unconscious in the rain for some reason and his wife who was named Linda — no that’s the actress — it was Crystal, that’s right, Crystal Carrington, which now that I think about it sounds like it should be a company that makes window treatments like, “Valences and miniblinds by Crystal Carrington” anyway Crystal goes out on horse in the storm I don’t know why a horse but I’m sure there was  good reason – (was it a horse, hon?) (My husband says yes it was a horse) — yelling over the rain and the wind and stuff, “Blake! Blaaay-ke!” because that was the guy’s name, and even though unconscious people don’t usually answer you she finds him and they go home, so sometimes we yell “Blaayke” just because it’s funny and the other day my husband went out for a walk and turned north at the sidewalk and later I went out and I turned south at the sidewalk, only I went out a lot later and I was only about three doors down from our house and I could see my husband and the neighbor was out edging his lawn and I said, “Hi,” and he said, “Hi,” and then he looked down the sidewalk at my husband, looked at me, looked at my husband again and I said, “What?” and he said, “I wondered if you were going to run at each other in slow motion.”

[*Part of this account are fictionalized for entertainment purposes.]

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Magical Systems

I had a great conversation with Brandy this week about magical systems. It got me thinking.

I’ve loved fantasy since I can remember. I loved fairy tales as a child, particularly ones where girls went alone into a dark wood and met a figure of power. In the 1970s I read Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, LeGuin and McKillip. I loved them all for different reasons. I read a lot of bad fantasy and I loved a lot of it too, for a lot of different reasons.

Tolkien wasn’t particularly interested in magic. If there was a system he wanted to explore in Lord of the Rings, it was linguistics. There were ghost armies, undead ringwraiths, rings of power (one of which apparently had a mind of its own) crystals that allowed to you see and communicate long distances; there were talking dragons and huge magical eagles, but it was the poetry, the spells and the songs that drew most of his imagination and most of his attention.

Ursula LeGuin envisioned a magical system drawn from a number of sources. These included a spiritual practice or system; nature-based folklore, and study. LeGuin’s magic was often deep knowledge, symbolized by the ability to Name things. LeGuin’s magic required the practitioner to look deep within; far from being a white knights or all-knowing saviors, LeGuin’s magicians struggled with their own darker impulses. Magic practice had consequences in her world. Often, those consequences came from the actions of the protagonists, as they were forced to confront their own blind spots.

Many fantasy novels from the 1970s/80s hewed closely to British Isles folklore and Greco-Roman (often called “classical”) mythology. Experimental writers in the 70s and 80s looked at Asian belief systems and Native American belief systems to inspire their magic. Those experimental writers got lost in the flood of three-book, epic War Against Evil, Got-to-Find-the-Magic-Stuff fantasy series of the 1980s.

In the 1980s, one clue that you were reading a bad fantasy was that magic had no limits. There were no consequences for the wielder; there was often no internal consistency and often no source for the magic. Robert E. Howard’s imaginary warrior Conan lived in a world with this kind of magic, and in the 1980s lots of people who weren’t writing Tolkien Lite were writing Howard Lite; more graphic sex, less sincerity, and endless gouts of magic, probably fueled by gory human sacrifice for reasons that are not explained except Evil Evil Evil.

Should magic have rules? Of course. Spells, rituals, magical artifacts and potions are part of the fun of the genre. One premise of a magical system is that magic is some form of energy. Energy has to be channeled. These are the ways we channel it.

“Rules” doesn’t mean magic is by the numbers. Good magic in a book is high-risk and contains an element of unpredictability. And most fantasy books have a premise that not everyone can do magic. If magic were just a formula, then anyone could do it. That’s a premise too, by the way; open-source versus controlled knowledge (throw open the libraries and share magic with everyone!)

So, what kinds of magic systems are there? Here are some:

Nature-Based Magic:

Here’s my personal favorite. Magic is portrayed as a force on the earth, often tied to “the four elements” (earth, air, fire, water). The elements may be anthropomorphized, with “elemental” beings related to one of the four. A magical human may have a particular affinity for one or more of the four. Some folkloric systems have five elements, some break out the elements differently, but they are based on observations of the natural world.

Herb-magic, plant magic and potions also go along with nature-based systems. In my opinion, blood-magic does too.

Who does it well? LeGuin and Noami Novik come to mind. A writer doing wonderful things with earth-based systems is Nnedi Okorafor, who is drawing from her Nigerian background to create characters who interact with the earth in ways that are new to me, internally consistent, and fascinating.

I’d have to say N.K. Jemisin’s recent trilogy The Broken Earth uses a form of earth magic. In Jemisin’s hands it becomes something completely new.

The Old Magic, The Dark Magic:

An offshoot of nature magic is the sense of older, darker magic, a force, or something, that may be awakened by superficial conjurations, and may not be happy. I think the old magic is a throwback to the times when we didn’t live in such a tech-bubble. Night was frightening, the forest was frightening, because we understood our place in the ecosystem better (in short, we could become prey). But the impulse to the old magic is deeper than just fear that the wolves’ll get you. I think it’s the remnants of reverence. It’s a spiritual impulse powered by the force of nature. In fact, knowing what we now know about trees and fungus and how they communicate, the idea of the dark forest as a place of magic suddenly doesn’t seem so old-fashioned.

The Magic of The Others:

Outsource your magical needs! Just be really careful when you do. Here are a few of magic’s best-known contractors.

The Fae: They were here before us, they aren’t like us, and they have powers that we do not. Interacting with them is highly risky, and can be highly rewarding.

The Devil, or demons: The magician makes a deal with a creature from an underworld, whatever underworld it is. Once again high-risk, high-reward. Deals with demons always read to me like dominance exercises. The magicians impose their will on a fierce creature with powers—or at least that’s what they think they’re doing.

An example of Magic from the The Others, with consequences, is the sword Stormbringer, wielded by Elric of Melnibone, Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero. Stormbringer eats the souls of those it kills and feeds the energy of that life force back into its wielder. It could be just a magical artifact, but Stormbringer isn’t. It’s sentient, with tragic consequences for Elric.

What about gods? Surely gods fall into this category. God become magical systems when they provide magically imbued weapons and when they procreate with humans, which is probably the most common god-based fantasy-magical system. A protagonist, or the villain (or both) is half-god. Gods are just as tricky as the Fae or demons. Don’t believe me? Ask the ancient Greeks.

Do gods stand in for a spiritual source of magic? I think rarely. In fantasy (and folklore) gods are super-powered Others. One fantasy writer who is taking a serious look at spirituality as a source of magic is Max Gladstone in his Craft series. Not too long ago, in this world (really far-future earth) human waged a war against the gods and won. They killed the gods, or so they think, anyway. They siphoned off the spiritual power of the gods into quantifiable units called thaums. Where before a priestess or priest used sacrifice or ritual to get a god to power the city, provide fresh water or heal the sick, now people offer units of thaums to get what they need, and larger agreements about the bodies of the dead (not-so-dead) gods is written up in contracts by people of the Craft, who look a lot like lawyers. Gladstone has a lot to say about secularism, spirituality, speaking truth to power and the nature of belief.

Magical Substances:

Drugs! Yes, one of the most reliable sources of magic.

I think maybe “blood magic” could go here as well, especially if the magical practitioner ingests it to get power. Many modern fantasies rely on a specific magical substance; the blood of a magical creature (or its meat or its bones); water from a somehow-magical spring, the leaves of a plant. Devon Monk has a substance called “glim” in her magical steampunk series; brave airship pilots take their ships way too high in order to harvest it. Glim is somehow connected to an age-old and very convenient substance called the ether.

Brandon Sanderson’s popular Mistborn series probably took the “drink some stuff, get magic” system the farthest, with the most detail. For certain magical people, ingesting small amount of metal powder gives them powers. Specific metals provide specific powers, and Sanderson’s book include the tables and appendices that will give RPG-type fantasy readers shivers of joy.

Greg van Eekhout created one of the most innovative “magic by substance” systems in his Osteomancy series, where bones hold the magical essence of creatures.

We can take magical substances a little bit further if we look at the superhero genre. Gamma rays, exploding reactors, and spider bites are all examples of magic being imposed by substance.

What’s your favorite drug magic?

Ceremonial/formulaic Magic:

I’m cheating by lumping these two together. Ceremonial magic relies entirely on the accuracy of each word, each gesture, each glyh. It requires study and drilling, and it’s hierarchical. I think it works based on the idea of affinities, but ceremonial magic is coercive. The magician or wizard is forcing the universe to do their will.

It’s very popular in movies because you can have a great scene at the end where people are shooting at you and the scary monster is also there but no matter what you really have to concentrate and get the spell exactly right! It’s also popular with the people who like magical duels and magical battles, because it seems to be about power. To me, it also seems like, logically, anyone who studied and committed themselves to it could do it. (That concept will become Part Two of this very long post.)

I think it’s possible to put potion magic in this category because a potion uses a formula, but I think potion magic can fit more than one place.

Magic of Whimsy:

Brandy coined that phrase and I like it, so I stole it.

I think the magic of whimsy relies on affinity. Even though the results of magic of whimsy are serious, there is an always an element of play. One fun example is Matthew Swift, the character in Kate Griffin’s books. If I remember it right, Matthew once faces down a magical adversary in the Tube in London by flashing his Oyster card and reading off the back. An Oyster card gives its holder access to the Tube. Big deal, right? Except that Matthew knows that the city of London is 2000 years old, and he confronts his adversary with the moral right, bestowed by the city, to have access. It sounds silly, but it’s good magic. Matthew can evoke creatures out of gutter litter. The city can also inflict creatures of shadow, of paint, of electricity, on its residents because London is almost a living being of great power.

Nobody does the magic of Whimsy better, in many books, than Sir Terry Pratchett.

The magic of whimsy works, I think, because the wielder has, if not respect, at least understanding and affection for the system they are drawing on. That may not be a traditional  magical system. It might be the city you grew up on and have come to love. It might be the folks songs you and your band play. It might be the little vegetable patch you planted with your grandma when you were a kid, that you still maintain. All these things, these things that root your in your live, can become sources of magic.

Magic of Sound:

Word magic. Spells, curses, chants. Words that mustn’t be spoken. Names of things. Humanity’s most powerful tool is probably the most common source of magic.

Sometimes spells must rhyme or scan. Sometimes they must be spoken in a language not known by the common folk; sometimes a dead, or forbidden language. Sometimes they must be sung. Clearly, the idea of vibration hums around the thought of word magic.

LeGuin had the idea of Naming magic; that to know someone or something’s true name connected you with it. It might mean that you have power over it, but in some cases that “knowing” is a lifeline. Naming is about intimacy and trust, powerful things we don’t really understand. A perfect matrix for magic.

The Magic of Numbers:

From numerology to physics, numbers and math are the perfect seedbed for magic. It’s nearly always ordered and structured, but once in a while a writer like Charles Stross gets hold of it and makes it wild, scary and incredibly fun. That’s about all I’m going to say.

What is the purpose of magic? What is the meaning of magic? Who gets it use it? I think I’ll do a second post, about who is in the magic club, and who is out.

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Annihilation the Movie; That One Scene

Warning; Spoilers probably.

This isn’t a complete review, so here’s a link to the cast and crew, if you’re interested.

I saw the movie Annihilation. I liked it, and I think I will be in the minority.

There were five other people in the theater with me (a weekday matinee).During the movie two people got up and left and did not come back. They weren’t together and they left at different times. Plainly, they weren’t engaged by the film. I understand that.

The film is inspired by JeffVanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The book excels at creating a serious sense of dislocation from reality. The characters, five women on an expedition into a quarantined area, don’t know what they can trust. They begin to lose time, and memory. Directions don’t seem to match what their senses (and their equipment) tells them, and all around them, the wildlife is changing in breathtaking and terrifying ways. Frankly, I wasn’t sure a film could convey the sense of dislocation. Otherness, yes… but genuinely not knowing what you are seeing, feeling, hearing? Growing to doubt the most fundamental sense of yourself? Hard to see how you do that in a film.

I’m not sure writer/director Alex Garland did do it. He did, however, make the quarantined land, Area X, convincing as a landscape unto itself, bound by no earthly rules of physics or biology, in which humans are merely raw material.

One scene sold me on this film. It was terrifying to me – and no, it isn’t the disgusting scene you may have heard about. (Quasi-spoiler: for those of you planning to see Annihilation, if you are squeamish, in the scene that begins, “For those who come after,” be prepared to cover your eyes. Seriously.) No, shortly after that scene, Lena, the biologist main character and two of her colleagues are gagged and tied to chairs by the fourth one, Thorensen, who is not-so-quietly going crazy. The fifth member, Shepherd, was already carried off by a mutated bear-boar-monster. Lena saw her remains. On the verge of eviscerating Lena, Thorensen suddenly hears Shepherd screaming for help. They all hear it. It’s not an hallucination. Thorensen runs outside and vanishes. And then, into the darkened room with the bound and gagged women comes the mutated bear. It roars, and when it roars it also screams from help in Shepherd’s voice.

The scene is shot very dark with weird angles and strong shadowing as the beast paces around them, roaring and screaming. Each growl and roar is a cry from Shepherd, who they couldn’t help, begging for help. It’s surreal. It’s painful. It’s sad. I was hunched down in my seat with my arms crossed over my midriff.

I don’t know whether Garland knows it, but this effect pays homage to a terrifying creature Gene Wolfe created in The Books of the New Sun — the alzabo. The alzabo apparently was brought to earth from another planet. It is a predator, and when it eats a human, it absorbs the memories, yearnings and loves of that human. It is still an alien animal, but its hunger is now mixed with the love of its last prey, so it will come to the house of the loved ones of the person it just devoured and call their names in the dead person’s voice. Hunger and love are inextricably mixed, and the purest emotions of a person’s life become the greatest dangers to the ones they loved.

That’s what the mutant bear was; a mix of the most terrible and most sad. The scene grabbed me, and it’s mostly what I remember about the movie.

Generally, I thought the visuals were gorgeous and while some critics complain that the characters aren’t deeply developed, some of that is straight from the source material (in VanderMeer’s book the characters don’t even have names, just occupations). Yes, the fairly long ending did look like somebody’s idea of an acid trip, but it was a well done acid trip. As I left the cinema it’s that scene, with Shepherd’s voice crying “help me” out of the mouth of the beast that devoured her, that I remember of Annihilation.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | 2 Comments