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branchandroot: Wolfwood with gun (Wolfwood shoot the deserving)
You know how some authors, especially fantasy authors doing the whole spiritual-magic gig, will bring forward the "all gods are really one god, because uber-god is Goodness/Light/Love/Insert-virtue-here" trope? (Eg. Katherine Kurtz and Mercedes Lackey.) You know what that really reminds me of? That deeply horrifying short story Barbara Hambly wrote for Gaiman's Sandman anthology, "Each Damp Thing". There's just something intensely cannibalistic about the sentiment, especially in the mouth of a member of a culturally imperialist group. It's like syncretism turned inside out--not preserving individual practices, but taking away their weight until they can be waved off as surface trappings.

I've seen the principle argued persuasively in actual theology, notably some branches of Judaism. But the Western literary expression of it generally seems to be all about appropriation and how reincarnation can magically erase ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries, totally ignoring the implications of actual lived experience and memory in each life.
branchandroot: daisy by a cup of tea (tea with flower)

So the latest wave of Racefail, centering around Wrede’s new novel and currently being documented by naraht, has led one of my favorite authors to leave the virtual house without her pants. I am appalled that Bujold has let herself do this. To be sure, racial issues have never been one of her strengths. Ethnic and national issues, yes, but everyone in her books tends to be white. Except when they’re heretical invaders who are especially repressive of women and queer people, which, um… yeah, not a shining moment given the isolation in which it stands.

Contemplating this, however, made me think about a few white authors who did manage to get something right and keep their awareness live. And I wanted to document them as examples and possibly useful starting points for authors who wish to likewise learn to keep their pants up. I am in no way suggesting that any of them Got It Right, since I don’t think any author ever manages that on any issue, but these are a few who got something right.

Hambly, Weber and Clayton, oh my )

So what about you? Are there any authors you would point to who get something right?
branchandroot: Miako sparkling (Miako lovelove)

Notice: This is a repost of an entry; the first was cruelly devoured in a crossposting glitch and all the lovely comments with it. If anyone wants to comment again or more I will be perfectly pleased to carry on the conversations.

So, here’s the thing. I’m all in favor of having books that are id-candy, brain-fluff, that demand nothing from your intellect and instead go straight on to punch your emoporn joybuttons.

This is, after all, why I own three quarters of everything Mercedes Lackey has ever published.

But, first off, id-candy is a different thing from good writing. The joybuttons don’t care about bad grammar or triteness or slop, they just resonate to the character shapes that hit one’s kinks. Kinks are often trite and cliche, when you think about it. Id-candy is enjoyable exactly because it doesn’t make your brain engage, it doesn’t deal in subtleties, it doesn’t make you do any work. To get enjoyment out of genuinely artful prose, you generally have to think, to ponder even, to put in some work.

Saying that you enjoy your id-candy immensely and saying that your id-candy is great writing are very different statements. Among other things, the first is true and the second generally isn’t. (Unless you’re using a completely Utilitarian definition of “good”, and when people try to compare Rowling and Tolkien it is unfortunately clear that they are not employing such a definition at all.)

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the hell out of trite, cliched slop, of course.

Let us consider Misty, for example. She’s the Queen of Exposition, has a tendency to extremely moralistic and preachy narrative, and drives home her morals with a ten pound sledge. She is guilty of the most egregious cultural flattening and caricaturization and the only thing that comforts me even minutely is that she does it to everyone, whitebread, ‘noble savage’ and orientalist alike. (I maintain that Ancient Egypt should take out a restraining order on the woman.) Her characters are flat, their angst is repetitive, and half the time the stories read like SCA handbooks instead of novels.

Nevertheless–three quarters, right there on my shelf, and I reread handfuls of them at fairly regular intervals. This is because they are excellent brain-fluff emoporn.

Also because they are not toxic. Her moralism can get wearing awfully fast, but at least they are morals I can agree with. Mostly.

That’s the second thing. You have to be careful of the id-candy that uses a moral framework that’s harmful to you.

The Twilight books are a prime example of this. The writing is no worse than most id-candy, but the value system those books are hung on is poison. It’s misogynist, racist, deterministic, conflates obsession and stalking with love, and runs the mobius strip of nihilism and femininity myths at full speed with special emphasis on death by/for childbirth. (I would not want to be this woman’s therapist, not without hazard pay). This id-candy has a razor blade in it.

Some people probably bemoan the loss of innocent fun now that we chop up Halloween candy before eating it to make sure there aren’t any evil surprises in it. I expect some people feel the same about their id-candy. But, you know, I’d much rather take the time to chop and evaluate than swallow a needle.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

One of the benefits of being a friend of the author is: sometimes you get free books.

And this was quite a good free book, so I’m reviewing it. Not in hopes of getting a copy of the next one at all, of course. I’m much too high-minded for that kind of thing. *looks suitably virtuous*

So let us consider The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim Hines. )
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

Continuing on with the What I Like series, I have been reflecting on where my genre fiction tastes intersect with my Literature tastes.

I enjoy a good deal of 19th C lit of all sorts, but the authors I am very especially fond of are Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf. Comparing them to my genre fic favorites and considering just what it is I enjoy, not just about reading them, but about analyzing them, I have concluded that I like authors who turn their brains inside out on the page.

But, and this is an important caveat, I also require a modicum of poetry to really hold my attention. That was my problem with Heinlein–well, one of my problems, to go along with my disgust for his rampant misogyny. His stories read as though he turned his brain inside out, indeed, and then just shook it over the page, squashed the pages together, and sent that off to the publisher like some kind of verbal Rorschach blot.

I require some linguistic artistry to go along with the brain-guts, otherwise I just get bored.

On reflection, this is often my problem with science fiction in general, at least the kind written by actual scientists and science associates, who, as a general rule, cannot write poetry to save their souls. Limericks, yes; poetry, not so much.

On a similar note, not only is brevity the soul of wit, it is the soul of keeping me reading. I have about the same tolerance for reading minute descriptions of machines as I do for reading minute descriptions of buildings and clothing, which is to say, very little. Jane Austin and David Brin both win on this score. Issac Asimov frequently loses and the less said of James Fenimore Cooper the better.

It’s really too bad there isn’t some kind of litmus test I can do on new books, a carefully calibrated metaphorical strip I could dip between the covers to see what colors it turned–whether I’d get that turquoise tinge that means poetry plus brain-guts or the flat indigo of just poetry. Which interests me about as much as just brain-guts, which is to say, yawn.  Jacket blurbs are worthless for this purpose.

Oh, well. I guess I’m stuck with standing in the aisle flipping through my prospective books and hoping for a bit of nicely turned gut phrasing to catch my eye.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

I think I have identified one of the things that leads me to like an author’s writing: when they write in several genres at once.

I knew Bujold did this, and Pratchett. But they’re both the kind of writers it’s easy to think of as simply exceptional. What I just realized, recently, is that some of my other favorites do this too. Barbara Hambly, for example.

Hambly writes science-fiction and fantasy. She writes horror. She writes historicals. She writes romance. And the thing is, she writes all of them at once. While any book of hers may lean toward one more than the rest, you can pretty much count on all those genre threads being in every book.

Of course, this means that she doesn’t usually follow most genre conventions of any of them.

Take the horror, for instance. Hambly’s books have plenty of it, whether gruesome and unknowable creatures from beyond the stars or the depths of human depravity and cruelty. But it’s never the point. It’s just there, and the characters have to deal with it. Which means she can’t be easily categorized as “dark fantasy” either, because the fantasy elements generally contribute to a very optimistic story, overall.

Or take the romance. Her books do generally feature multi-verse spanning, life altering love found at long odds. But her characters deal with it as one would expect people in the middle of deadly crises to do: “Wow, this is incredible! If we live, let’s have a good snog/marriage/deathless bond, okay? Now duck!”

As for the historical aspect, well even without her biographical blurb I’d have guessed she had either an advanced degree or an advanced hobby in history. Her narratives are chock full of little details that unmistakably set the stories in place and time. But it’s still the characters who are the point, not the details, and a lot of the books are set in places and times that didn’t actually exist, which makes it hard to call them historical fiction.

She writes against the genre grain, which I find charming. Also something I should probably keep in mind when next browsing the library or bookstore shelves.

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

I find myself torn every time I go back and read Janny Wurts, especially any of the volumes of Wars of Light and Shadow.

On the one hand, I like her characters very much. I like the texture of the world she’s made. I like the story itself.

When I can winkle it out of the thicket of adjectives, that is.

And that’s the first sticking point. Wurts is a good storyteller but not a skillful writer. It makes me tear my hair. She’s in love with descriptive phrases, especially ones that make no actual sense. Now that can be done well, and I’m very fond of the way Barbara Hambly, for example, makes occasional use of it, but Wurts takes it way, way too far. It’s lot like her italics, which some kind person should take away from her before she hurts herself. Her crises tend to be very artificial, and, really, there’s only so much Cosmic Misunderstanding I can take before I throw up my hands with frustration. The stories have a lot of pathos, but the narrative renders it all plastic.

That isn’t the part that makes me twitch the most, though. No, the part that makes me twitch the most is the Sledgehammer of Scary Morality. That’s the real other hand.

Wurts has created a world in which humans have no right to exist. While humans have much vaunted free will, there, if they screw up they’ll be wiped out of existence. Screwing up is defined pretty much as any interference with unsullied Nature–so, eg, entering an industrial age and gaining any technology beyond muscle-power, because this would, of course, Blight The Land.

Corollary to this, she has created a world in which technology is explicitly identified with humanity’s downfall and self-destruction. Back to the land for the humans, because that’s the only salvation! Of course, when humans are biddable there’s magic which, despite not being of any use in daily life, somehow makes up for everything. Just by, you know, existing.

She has created a world with a biologically determined ruling class, in which heredity infallibly produces enlightenment. This ruling class currently lives as Noble Savages with, as an added bonus, a racial past that includes castles and courtliness and probably roses. Two for the price of one.

And just to round things out, she has produced a world in which the wizardly guardians of God’s Natural And Unsullied Order are seven old men while the group of Misguided, Selfishly Humanocentric And Arrogant magicians are exclusively women. This seriously undermines the gender equality she allows those characters in less critical walks of life.

Those, and not the italic melodrama, are the real things that make it impossible for me to read a whole volume without putting it down and reading something with less species-and-gender self-hate in it for a bit. Wurts is a perfect example of one of fantasy’s Really Bad Habits: the pretense that the absence of technology can somehow redeem humanity’s ravening nature.

The only thing that can redeem humanity’s ravening nature is for humanity to knock it off. The presence or absence of technology may well speed the process of whatever we’re doing, but we can’t shove responsibility for our actions off onto our tools. That just obscures the real issues.

Kind of like Wurts’ adjectives.

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