Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
The Goblin Emperor
Hugo Awards 2015 - Novel by Katherine Addison
Friday, May 29, 2015 6:59 pm
I am a voter for the 2015 Hugo Awards. I am posting my thoughts about the candidate works. Be warned that spoilers abound.

Maia, the half-goblin and youngest son of the Emperor of the Elflands, banished with his mother from the court, inherits the crown when the Emperor and all other his other sons are killed in an airship accident (which was, in fact, no accident). Maia is not at all prepared and has to find his place.

To begin with, this novel passed one of my standard tests: I never cringed at the dialogue. Sometimes I cringed at what was being said, but never the way it was being said. None of it was cloying or cute. Indeed, none of the writing made me cringe. That may seem like faint praise, but it's not. Addison's style is controlled and effective. She revealed things in a sound order, with a sound pacing. Things followed one another well and I wanted to keep reading. Her fantasy world did not dazzle me and seems a bit conventional (even to me, who doesn't read much fantasy), but it worked. 

At one point, Maia receives a letter from Mer Celehar, who is investigating the sabotage that killed the previous Emperor. The letter is long and describes everything Celehar has been up to. Momentarily I thought: "This stuff is good. Addison should have narrated this action as a sub-story instead of having it relayed in a messenger speech." But immediately I realized two things. First, the action was engaging enough, even if presented at a remove. Second, any sub-story — that is, a chapter from Celehar's point of view — would have been contrary to the novel's approach. Everything is from Maia's point of view. Maia is in every scene. This is a book about Maia as Emperor, not about court intrigue and the like. The intrigue is there, of course, but only as something around Maia. In the end, Addison's disciplined maintenance of one point of view keeps you properly bound to Maia's travails.

Early on there are some conventional hints of steampunk (most notably: transport via airship). I appreciate such things, not least because I favor tech even in my fantasy. And while this is not a steampunk novel by any means, the clockwork steam-tech is actually relevant. The Clocksmiths' Guild figures in both the sabotage that starts the tale and the building of a wonderful mechanical bridge. This bridge is an occasion of Maia's political assertion and, in the end, symbolic of Maia's nature as an Emperor. It is pleasing that the tech is not just decoration.

This being a novel published in 2014, I was braced (as ever) for social nonsense.

Celehar has been disgraced for having a male lover who was also a murderer. A nobleman is afraid of having a young man interviewed in wake of an assassination attempt because, of course, he is lusting after that young man. One of Maia's goblin half-sisters became a pirate captain and has a "wife." This final tidbit is more like signaling from Addison than agitprop, but the implication is that a woman naturally might have a "wife." These things are tolerable, however, not least because no character says: "Golly, there's nothing wrong with loving a man, Celehar!" And indeed, the characters, at least, tend to accept that such loves are "unnatural." So the homosexual messaging was mild.

On the other hand, the feminist messaging kneecaps the novel. And I mean kneecaps it. Despite some misgivings, I was really enjoying things — and then in Chapter 34 (of 35), we get the full-on "Hear Me Roar" denouement. Now, the things presented are not non sequiturs. Addison is actually a careful writer, and I'm generally impressed with the way everything was neatly plotted, not least the intrigue. Nothing in Chapter 34 comes out of the blue. However, it was all better left unsaid.

Except — I realized sadly as I read on — Chapter 34 was Addison's point. She could no more leave it unsaid than simply stop writing.

Take, as an example, Maia's elven half-sister Vedero. Earlier she had been promised as wife to a son of a prominent family. There had been no formal contract, however. And as it turns out, she does not wish to be married. Maia asks her what she would do, were she not given in marriage. And she replies that she would "study the stars."

Yes, fine, there are girls who would rather be scholars than wives. It's a character touch, it explains her refusal, it's a nod to the conventions of this girls-can-do-anything era of ours. But in Chapter 34, Maia joins Vedero at the telescope. Vedero is, of course, wearing trousers. She goes on about the wondrous telescope — which was designed by a woman. Then she goes on about her colleagues, of whom one is translating works of poetry, another is writing a treatise, another has started a magic school for girls... Yea, all sorts of women disdaining marriage and motherhood! "Women," as Vedero says, her shoulders "stiffly defensive," "can and should do the same intellectual work as men."

Thus, what was a tolerable character touch becomes jarring propaganda. STEM for the elven lasses!

You realize that many noblewomen in the book have been acting, in one way or another, against their duties — chafing, bristling, brooding. Again, Chapter 34 is not out of the blue; it is, in retrospect, inevitable. Earlier, Maia's Empress-to-be said that she preferred to be allowed to choose her duties. What a colossal misunderstanding of duties! We do not choose our duties. What we are imposes duties. Some things we can choose to be: a scholar; a wife. Some things we can not choose to be: a woman; a daughter. But in either case, the duties are never chosen. They simply must be fulfilled. And yes, sometimes a prior duty prevents us from choosing to be, say, a scholar instead of a wife.

The very worst feminist moment comes in the excuses made for Shevean. She is mother of the other surviving heir to the throne, Maia's younger nephew Idra. Shevean participated in a failed coup against Maia. And Idra says of her:
She is very fierce. [...] She would not be what she is if she ever had something given her that was a burden equal to her strength. One hears people say it all the time — 'she should have been a son to her father' — but it is true. If she had been a son, she would have had a duty that went beyond children.
Idra does elaborate by describing Shevean's simple rage against Maia, who, like everyone it seems, would not conform to her wishes; but the fundamental blame belongs, of course, to patriarchy.

In fairness, Chapter 34 is not only feminist claptrap. Essentially it is the crystallization of Maia as Emperor. The specifically feminist stuff is there because Maia is the Emperor who builds the bridges. After all, Maia is the one who, among so much else, allowed a woman to be one of his bodyguards. Why, this is a Goblin Emperor that even a 21st-century American feminist can support!

Not least because Maia is essentially a woman.

When I started the novel, his name threw me. "Maia" is a woman's name. Oh, wait, no, the pronouns indicate "Maia" is a he. Well. Okay. Fantasy novel; goblin language; I don't know. Fine. Maia is a he. And you have to keep reminding yourself that he is. It's as if Addison is trolling you, giving him a girl's name and daring you not to notice his essential girlishness.

I don't mean in his emotions, as such. I think Addison does a good job depicting Maia's pain and difficulties. He is quite credible as an abused, neglected, overwhelmed, and sad young person. However, he is not credible as an exemplar of anything male.

This is most evident in the way that all his struggles are resolved in the infamous Chapter 34. Basically, he makes friends with all those who have not attempted to overthrow or assassinate him. With so many of the people who had distrusted or troubled him, he achieves a kind of rapport.
Idra, Csethiro, Nedao, Vedero: instead of bulwarks, he began to feel he had alliances, that his life — for perhaps the first time since his mother died — was not merely a matter of surviving from one hostile encounter to the next.
Now, Maia is not utterly naive, nor is the book. As he says to his bodyguards:
I believe that the Adremaza meant his advice for the best, but he was cruelly wrong. I do not ask, or expect, you to be friends with me as you are friends with other mazei, or other soldiers in the Untheileneise Guard. But it... it's silly to deny that we hold each other in affection.
And when the bodyguards affirm their affection for him, Maia says: "Then we will be a different sort of friends."

None of this is handled shabbily. It is affecting. But as a culmination it is so feminine. The word "alliances" is used but what we actually have here is an end to Maia's emotional isolation. This is what terminates his imperial worries. His reign will be good because he has friends. He has gained no insights or skills regarding the flourishing of his realm; but gosh and golly, people really like him. They do!

Honestly. What a girl.

For a while I was excited by The Goblin Emperor. Here is a book I'd never heard of, that did not involve space fleets or cybernetics, that I began reading just to judge it for an award; yet, over a weekend, I kept returning to it gladly, in between this or that. Then the sour bits accumulated. Then Chapter 34 hit.

Is it a well-written book? Yes. Is it worth reading? Yes. Does it deserve to be on the Hugo shortlist? Sure. Do I regret reading it? Not really.

I don't know anything about Addison. I am not judging the book based on her race, sex, or whom she voted for in 2012. I do not deny the simple quality of this book because of its feminist message. It is not merely message fiction; there is a good story here. But in the end, the message is never irrelevant to the evaluation of a book. I would never award first place to a novel with the shopworn attitude of The Goblin Emperor.

Ages as Bright as Any
Michael Flynn's Eifelheim
Saturday, June 21, 2008 9:37 pm
In seeking science fiction that is neither left-wing nor Christophobic, I would have thought the worst place to look would be in a novel about aliens crashing in a medieval German town. O! the opportunities to condemn the superstitious villainies of the Dark Ages! Beleaguered aliens — so like ourselves in their adherence to Science! — against the base and ignorant Catholicism of dim-witted villagers! Goodness me, the cliches write themselves.

Eifelheim is absolutely nothing like that. This is a work that depicts medieval Catholics with sympathy, not by supposing them to be unwashed Episcopalians who would vote Democratic if only they could, but by eschewing condescension and hatred — and, more to the point, by depicting the faithful Catholics as fully rational. 

In trying to understand the alien Krenken, Pastor Deitrich does not struggle to accommodate his religion and his science. He doesn't overcome any "provincial" shortcomings nor abandon his beliefs. Rather, he quite intelligently employs the scholarship of his age — secular and religious — to explain the Krenken. His categories may be medieval and Catholic, but they are rational. Put simply, Dietrich is not forced into some sort of proto-Enlightenment. He remains medieval. Best of all, his understandings are never made to seem pitiful for being insufficiently post-Einsteinian.

So Eiefelheim plays upon the actual strengths — intellectual and technical — of the Middle Ages. Does that mean we get an apology for the Middle Ages, a novel of Medieval Boosterism? No. But we are spared any nonsense about "Dark" Ages. Although the villagers are, quite properly, depicted as 14th-century people, they are also depicted as human beings, fearful and wise.

And wonder of wonders, Christianity itself is presented well — not as a generic stand-in for Belief in God but as a precisely dogmatic view of things. I'll give you two significant examples of this.

First: The fervent, hard-line Franciscan Joachim, who like others of the villagers believes the Krenken to be demons and, at first, seems like he's going to be the stock Intolerant Bigot, instead proclaims: "Show these beings what a Christian is. Welcome them into your hearths, for they are cold. Give them bread, for they are hungry. Comfort them, for they are far from home. Thus inspired by our example, they will repent and be saved... Imprisoned in flesh, they can wield no demonic powers. Christ is all-powerful. The goodness of Christ is all-powerful... Now we may see that it will triumph over Hell itself!" And Joachim is as good as his word.

Second: Much as Dietrich uses his categories to understand the Krenken Science, the Krenken use theirs to understand Dietrich's Christian Faith. Of course, much as Dietrich's categories fail him a bit, the Krenken's fail them a bit; yet as time goes on, many of the Krenken are actually converted and baptized! Not frivolously, either, but — as Joachim had hoped — in reaction to the Christianity of Dietrich and the villagers. Yes, the baptized Krenken have their moments of doubt (Eifelheim is no more a booster for Christianity than it is for the Middle Ages), but they remain faithful — even unto their personal detriment.

Now, on top of its respect for and intelligent engagement with medieval Catholicism, Eifelheim is simply a beautiful story. As science fiction it is sound, if a little unremarkable. That is, don't come to it expecting any unprecedented ideas about aliens or interstellar travel. But as a story it is beautiful. It is not about aliens but about a medieval village confronted with non-human souls, and there are episodes and events and scenes and characters that are great and plentiful and excellently arranged. Even granting that I am a soft touch, Eifelheim moved me. I can't recommend it enough.

P.S. I'm currently deep into Flynn's novel The Wreck of The River of Stars. Believe the hype: It's masterful. Read it — before or after Eifelheim, it doesn't matter. Gosh and damn, I've never been happier being an SF geek than in the past six months! And all it took was well-written SF that doesn't hate on my beliefs...

A Bee Contemplates Buzzing
The Definition of High Art
Sunday, January 8, 2006 8:46 pm
Despite having been a writer for decades now and having had the unsurprising and frequent inclination, as a producer of art, to contemplate the nature of art, it was many years until I realized something that I think is very true.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: All works are not substantially equal. However much the academics might want to de-privilege the canon, there remains a qualitative difference between high art and low art. This, to be sure, is not news. If you think I am merely about to scoff at academics who overpraise hip-hop or graffiti, you would be wrong. Such academics, however much they perdure, have been adequately ridiculed already. My question is only this: Given the obvious fact that some art is high and some low, what is it, in the end, that distinguishes high from low? And my answer is this: Depth of information. 

This is not entirely my idea. I heard a man use "information content" to explain, in passing, why concert music is higher than popular music. But I believe "information content" — or, as I prefer to put it, "depth of information" — applies to all art and is, indeed, sufficient to distinguish high from low. Notice I am not saying "distinguish good from bad." "Good" is an aesthetic judgment, valid enough but not enough to make a work high. And "bad" does not mean a work is not high. "Information" applies, obviously, to content, but perhaps not as obviously to form. That is, a work of high art is presented in a form that itself invites contemplation and rational elucidation. A work of high art is elaborate in content and form. Its information is deep.

That may seem to be a truism, but what I am trying to get across is that "deeply informed" is the complete definition of high art. Yes, of course, we would argue about what constitutes "deep." But by defining high art as "deeply informed" we don't become sunk in questions of aesthetics or culture — or origins. Thus even masters can produce low art — art that is well-made, enjoyable, memorable; yet for all that, lacking depth and therefore not high. Just because it's Mozart doesn't mean it's higher than Metallica.

And, as an added bonus, my succinct definition finally makes it clear to me why so much art that is supposedly high has always struck me as anything but. With my definition in hand, one can finally banish the freeloaders from the house of high art. For example, like him or not, value him or not, Pollock is not high art, because there is nothing elaborate or deeply informed about his work. Nothing intrinsic, that is. You can read all you want into Pollock's paint spills; they're still just spills. Deep information cannot be imputed to the work but must subsist in the work for the work to be truly high.

Jane Austen Tells It
Looks Like She Skipped Creative Writing 101
Sunday, October 10, 2004 7:30 pm
As I will surely say again, I object to creative-writing classes. I object to the notion that there is anything to be taught. To learn, perhaps, from accomplished example; but to be taught abstractly from contrived example?

I especially object to the notion that there are any rules of writing. Rules of language, yes, of grammar, of standard usage; but not of writing. "Rules" of writing tend only to mislead novices. The goal is good writing and, truly, good writing is discerned in the unique event. If a story works, it works. One can see patterns in good writing, I suppose; or better yet, patterns in bad writing; but the distillation of "rules" is misguided. 

If you have taken any instruction at all on writing creatively, you have surely heard this hoary "rule": Show, don't tell. This can be interpreted different ways. Usually it means: Don't report the facts; dramatize them. Not "She was angry" but "She cursed and pounded the wall." Which may or may not serve your story... Most of the time, however, this causes some terribly overwrought writing. What, after all, is so bad about saying "She was angry"? What is the point of the word angry if I'm to hesitate using it? While it is true that writing is not language, writing should not also be an abandonment of language. Angry exists because it is useful. Whether or not it should be used depends not on a silly "rule" but on the context of the passage and the intent of the author.

I realize that even advocates of show, don't tell would not dispute the importance of context and intent; nor would they, out of hand, reject a simple "She was angry." But their "rule" is therefore not a rule. It is, at best, a suggestion not to fail to be vivid. And even then, who's to say that drab is never appropriate?

One particularly pernicious application of show, don't tell affects larger narrative: It is that one must not "summarize" the action of a story. One should, rather, depict as much as one can. "Immerse your reader!" Well, yes, immersion is pretty much the goal; but telling can be as effective as showing, after all. Indeed, isn't it called "story-telling"? One can draw a reader in without depicting anything — at least, not in a dramatic sense. Drama is only necessary in theater.

I was particularly reminded of this as I was reading Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price, our heroine, has been living with her cousins at Mansfield Park. They are now in their late teens and early twenties. She has feelings of love for her cousin Edmund, her only real ally in the household. Now, while Fanny's uncle is gone from England, two socially vivacious visitors come to Mansfield Park: Mary and Henry Crawford. Amidst the other upheavals the Crawfords bring, the young men and women decide to put on a play — mostly for their own amusement. Fanny has misgivings about the Crawfords and about this play. She is nonetheless pulled into the preparations.

While she is helping Mary with her part, Edmund arrives to ask for Fanny's help with his part. As it was, Fanny had been playing Edmund's part against Mary's; now with Edmund himself on hand, he (instead of Fanny) rehearses with Mary. Here is the passage from Volume I, Chapter xviii.
They must now rehearse together. Edmund proposed, urged, entreated it, till the lady, not very unwilling at first, could refuse no longer, and Fanny was wanted only to prompt and observe them. She was invested, indeed, with the office of judge and critic, and earnestly desired to exercise it and tell them all their faults; but from doing so every feeling within her shrank — she could not, would not, dared not attempt it: had she been otherwise qualified for criticism, her conscience must have restrained her from venturing at disapprobation. She believed herself to feel too much of it in the aggregate for honesty or safety in particulars. To prompt them must be enough for her; and it was sometimes more than enough; for she could not always pay attention to the book. In watching them she forgot herself; and, agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund's manner, had once closed the page and turned away exactly as he wanted help. It was imputed to very reasonable weariness, and she was thanked and pitied; but she deserved their pity more than she hoped they would ever surmise. At last the scene was over, and Fanny forced herself to add her praise to the compliments each was giving the other; and when again alone and able to recall the whole, she was inclined to believe their performance would, indeed, have such nature and feeling in it as must ensure their credit, and make it a very suffering exhibition to herself. Whatever might be its effect, however, she must stand the brunt of it again that very day.
Now consider my point: Between They must now rehearse together and At last the scene was over are 182 words in maybe a dozen clauses constituting six sentences. The rehearsal is over within the course of a longish paragraph. Keep in mind: In the play Mary is secretly in love with Edmund. In real life Mary is eyeing Edmund; Edmund is dazzled by Mary; and Fanny is infatuated with Edmund and unsure of Mary. My oh my: Such potential for explosive drama! The back and forth one could depict! All the showing one could do! Yet Austen disposes of it all in six sentences. Six sentences of telling.

Austen does not show that Fanny becomes agitated; Austen just says: "...and, agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund's manner, [Fanny] had once closed the page and turned away..." That's it. Fanny was agitated. Austen tells you Fanny was agitated. You're not immersed in any action; at best, bits of action are briefly acknowledged. Edmund entreats; Mary cannot refuse; Fanny is made an observer. Fanny shrinks from criticizing. She forgets herself; becomes agitated; closes the page. They impute weariness to her. The end! Austen's summary is far more evocative than mine but nonetheless a summary.

A telling, my friends; not a showing. This passage immersed me in Fanny's predicament — yet I was given not a single line of dialogue and only a few discontinuous stage directions. No one, it seems, ever told Jane Austen that show, don't tell was the means to great writing; and we have only benefited from Austen's ignorance.

Let Her Love His Gift
Sunday, April 25, 2004 11:04 pm
Sometimes I say outrageous things. One such thing is: Art doesn't matter. Now, I say this out of petulance. I get annoyed by the overwrought sacralization of art. The sacralization of art is just a high-minded species of material attachment, and is only slightly less awful than the sacralization of, say, Jaguar XJ8s. 

But I am not one of those who think that humans should, properly, disdain material things (art included). That's the other, equally wrong extreme. God made the world — He materialized it — for reasons we may not know, but we know they were His reasons and therefore they were good. The material world is not a trap. Our body is not a restrictive vessel but a constituent part of us; it is entirely co-equal with our reason, soul, and will.

The problem with material attachment is that one has forgotten the source of material things. Listen to St. Augustine:
Suppose brethren, a man should make a ring for his betrothed, and she should love the ring more wholeheartedly than the betrothed who made it for her... Certainly, let her love his gift; but, if she should say, "The ring is enough, I do not want to see his face again," what would we say of her... The pledge is given her by the betrothed just that, in his pledge, he himself may be loved. God, then, had given you all these things. Love Him who made them.
Art itself is a gift of God. It is a product of the creative capabilities He gave us; it is an echo of His Creation. When, however, one asserts an almost supernatural and seemingly independent excellence about art, one has begun to love the ring and forget the face of one's Betrothed.

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