Interesting times again

I’m late today. I’m so late today that it’s lunchtime tomorrow in my part of Australia.

My excuse is a very interesting 24 hours. How can so many things go wrong in that time? I shall save you from a list, but the most visually dramatic was when I shattered half a dozen glasses, a small stack of bowls, and maybe a couple of other things. The count is approximate, because dealing with a lounge room full of shattered glass was more important than seeing what was left. Only two things I really cared about are gone. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this post is short because I still have to pick up pieces from most of the things that went wrong. I’ve sorted two, and the glass is almost cleared into a bag, waiting for someone to help me farewell it. The rubbish bins in my block of flats are not made for someone with my particular incapacities. At times like this, I feel aggrieved about it!

I will read something to improve my day, but it won’t be a calming book. I am re-reading Peadar Ó Guilín’s duology (The Call, The Invasion). They’re such good books that I would re-read them even if it wasn’t work-related. I’m in the happy position that doing a close re-read will advance my research and remind me that the last 24 hours has been interesting, but is nothing on children being kidnapped by otherworldly beings and, if they survive, returning… changed. Nothing like apocalyptic YA books for reminding me that life is really not that bad.

The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

Thinking about lost culture again

Lost culture is exciting. How can something be exciting when we have lost it? Most times when we talk about loss, it’s in terms of the events that caused the loss. The political pressure, the murders – dire events that add up to big cultural losses. Yet, when a culture is lost because of irrepressible cruelty, it leaves traces. For years, I’ve been watching for such traces, to see how much we can know when remnants of a population have been forced away from their homes and when their lives have to be rebuilt from scratch. I don’t want to hear about horror. I want to find out what we can know about what was destroyed. I don’t look for the names of people: I want to know how they lived.

The first and most obvious relic is, in many cases, linguistic. I was just reading a study of eighteenth and nineteenth century Yiddish in Europe. It traced loan words from cultural areas such as food. Those loan words matched with a bunch of trade records and showed that there was a dynamic and strong Jewish butchers’ industry in the Polish-Lithuanain Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. These days most of the surviving descendants are in the US and may not even eat kosher, but some of the Yiddish has snuck into US English and so, in parts of the US, there is a memory of a life that people once led.

Other records come from the persecutors themselves. The records of the Inquisition have vast repositories of cultural information about Spanish Jews. They used it to technically prove that people were reverting to Judaism or had not dropped Judaism. While conversion to Christianity is by a claim of faith, the Inquisition demanded complete cultural change. Those who held religious power in the empire Spain led was key to maintaining that Jews were impure and that impurity carried down the line to children and to children’s children so people with Jewish ancestry had to be watched forever in case they shifted back to their ancestral religion.

The “convert, leave or die” ultimatum in Spain in 1492 left a lot of people, then, having to forsake family traditions and local customs. It was not safe to wash and wear nice clothes on a Friday, or to send for sweets made by your favourite Jewish confectioner, or even to eat salad on Saturday afternoons. It was possible to be burned alive if any of these small things informed the Inquisition that you were secretly Jewish. Because the Inquisition documented their research into what they regarded as lapsed converts, we know more about everyday life before 1492 as well as after it.

Another hidden aspect of culture is what happens when a whole cultural/religious group is suddenly missing: local culture changes to fill the biggest and most gaping holes. For example, in some places where Jews were sent into exile or mass murdered, the remaining Christian population would suddenly eat more pork. Why? I assume because it proved they were not Jewish and were therefore safe. Big cultural shifts have reasons. This is only one of them, but it’s a deeply-distressing one.

Let me finish on a less distressing note. Superstitions. Some superstitions are folk beliefs that have walked alongside popular culture and religious culture for a while. Others are what’s left when the framework and history for that belief or action is lost. I can imagine that, when we all have flying cars, people will still look both ways before crossing the road, because a hundred years of watching for regular cars instilled a habit so strong we mostly don’t notice we’re doing it.

What look like irregularities in a contemporary culture can tell us a lot about where that culture has been, historically. It’s not the core of my research right now. It’s something I keep an eye on. A lot of the lost elements of culture are the aspects that will bring a novel to life for readers. Understanding how they fit together and create living spaces for real people in our past also helps us write history into fiction more accurately.

 

 

Someone sent me to a story the other day because they knew I was interested in alternate Jewish history (because my most recent novel, The Green Children Help Out, has superheroes and alternate Jewish history) and that story rested all of its research on Christian views of history. The concept was a terrific one: what would happen if the relationship between Christianity and Judaism were inverted, with Christianity the minor religion. Making Judaism more Christian both culturally and religiously meant the story didn’t even come close to exploring the concept. The major players were changed, but the everyday culture was not.

It’ll be a while before I can write a novel using these historical explorations, unless I want to follow the path of the story I so dislike. Before I can bring my imagination to play and tell stories based upon hidden and lost history, I need to find as much as I can about the hidden and lost histories. It’s a marvellously fun trail, but the research is happening now. Old and trusty studies aren’t nearly as useful as conferences and conversations with those doing the research.

July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

More Delightful Summer Reading

Here are some more reviews of books I’ve recently enjoyed recently.

 

Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott (Tor)

Kate Elliott always delivers entertaining stories with relatable characters, and Servant Mage is no exception. Indentured fire-mage Fellian leads a drab life, half-starved and clinging to memories of her childhood, before the rigid, fundamentalist Liberationists came to power and enslaved anyone with magical power. The usurped Monarchists have formed an underground rebellion, and they need Fellian’s Fire magic. Of course, one among them is devastatingly handsome, thereby setting expectations of romance to come, as well as the restoration of a noble, altruistic king.. Here’s where Elliott departs from the usual and becomes deeply subversive. Fellian holds steadfastly to her own values when presented with an attractive man and the lure of a benevolent monarchy restored. Instead, she asks piercing questions and relies on her own judgment, time and time again. She is keenly aware that the other conspirators need her special talent, and she’s not about to exchange her autonomy for a new community. In short, she thinks for herself. Through her, Elliott strongly questions the romantic notion so prevalent in fantasy: the noble aristocracy, devoted to the welfare of their subjects. Fellian insists that to trust future generations of entitled rulers is folly and that exchanging one form of top-down rule for another is no guarantee against despotism. This emperor might be just and fair, but in a generation, common people like her might find themselves just as oppressed.

I love how respectful Elliott is of her readers’ intelligence. She plays fair and gives us all the information we need (such as Fellian’s passion for literacy in teaching fellow servants to read and write) without ramming conclusions down our throats. She lets the characters and unfolding events speak for themselves without telling us how to feel about them. For this, and for superb storytelling and compelling characters, I’ll grab anything she writes!

 

The Necropolis Empire, A Twilight Imperium Novel, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Tim Pratt writes a lot of very cool science fiction. From his “Axiom” series (my gateway into his work) to The Doors of Sleep (which I really, really hope will become an entire series, now that there’s a sequel) to his “Twilight Imperium” novels. When I reviewed the first of these, The Fractured Void, I had no idea that Twilight Imperium is a war-without-end strategic game. I wrote, “Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).” That’s even more true for The Necropolis Empire. If you, like me, are so much Not a Gamer that you’re into negative gamer-ness, just ignore that part and enjoy the book as a great science fiction tale.

Standing on its own, The Necropolis Empire falls into one of my favorite science fiction subgenres: spooky alien ruins. In this case, very, very old alien ruins from a race we’re really glad has gone extinct. Now if folks would just stop trying to resurrect their tech…

Our young heroine, Bianca, lives on one such world, a pastoral culture built on top of the aforementioned, deeply buried alien tech. Scavenged bits are useful, but mostly the farmers go about their lives…until a ship from the imperialist Barony of Letnev arrives, annexes the planet, and carries Bianca away with a rather incredulous story about her being a space princess. Bianca falls for it, though. Not only is she adopted, but rather than settle down with a nice neighbor boy, she has always yearned for something beyond her own world. That something becomes clearer when she begins changing, developing superhuman speed, strength, senses, healing, and more. The ruthless Letnev believe she is the key to finding and controlling the ancient military relics, which they mean to use to dominate all known space. Bianca has other ideas.

I absolutely love how vulnerable and how competent Bianca is. Her confidence in herself and her abilities stems from more than her new, superhuman powers. As a child, she was wanted and cherished, never coddled but given responsibilities. She grew up with permission to tackle all manner of challenges, and she’s a genuinely nice person. The Letnev, not so much. They’ve perfected arrogance to an art form.

I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series of “The Adventures of Bianca,” although I sadly fear the good folks who’ve created Twilight Imperium are more interested in promoting their game and not so much in a fascinating character who stands on her own.

 

Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

I loved Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God, a fantasy set in Roaring 1920s Hollywood. Now she returns to that era, with its glamorous silent film stars, bootleggers, gangsters, drug use, widespread corruption, and the frenzied exuberance that followed World War I. In this story, a murder mystery (without Bride’s supernatural elements) the viewpoint character is Emma, a young British widow who now works as a companion and secretary for her superstar sister-in-law, Kitty. Classically trained, Emma is constantly affronted by the wildly inaccurate movie scripts (Kitty is currently starring in The Empress of Babylon), many of which she is called upon to rewrite on the spur of the moment. She’s also embarked on a possible new romance with cameraman Zak. To complicate matters further, Kitty’s real life is as melodramatic as her screen characters. She is a generous person for all her antics, especially loving to her three adorable Pekinese. When Kitty’s dissolute ex-husband, Rex, is found murdered, it looks very much as if someone is trying to set Kitty up to take the blame and is doing a very bad job of it. A deliberately bad job?

Drenched in atmosphere and fascinating historical details, featuring vivid characters and snappy dialog, Scandal in Babylon is Hambly at the top of her form. The pacing and depth of the scenes are wonderful, just the right combination of page-turning action, whodunit tension, and moments of reflection and personal growth.

Rumor has it that Scandal in Babylon will be the first of a new series. If so, sign me up!

 

The Science of Being Angry, by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers)

Eleven-year-old Joey lives in an unusual blended family. For one thing, she had her two twin brothers have two moms, one of whom was married before and has a son from that marriage. She and her brothers were the result of IVF, and the boys are identical, having split from the same egg. For all the nontraditional nature of this family, there’s a lot of love and acceptance. But all is not well with Joey. She’s been having increasingly volatile episodes of anger and acting-out. Her temper has become legendary at school, where she’s been given the nickname, “Bruiser,” after she threw a soccer ball at a boy in gym class so hard she bruised his collarbone. She’s roughly pushed away her best friend, on whom she also has a crush. Now she’s left with the fallout wreckage of what she’s done.

Despite the efforts of her moms to help her, Joey’s outbursts are only getting worse. Finally, she melts down into a tantrum so destructive, her family is evicted from their apartment and must move into a motel, where close quarters fuel everyone’s irritation. Her moms start bickering, and Joey thinks that’s her fault. Her older brother, who is trying to focus on his academics, goes to live with his father, and of course, Joey blames herself for that, too.

Joey can’t understand why she flies into a rage or how to control it. All her best intentions are in vain. Then she gets the idea that perhaps her temper is a genetic trait inherited from her biological father. If she can just track him down, she thinks, she might better understand her own volatility—and he might have found successful strategies for managing his anger. With the help of her alienated best friend/crush, she embarks on a genetics project for science class. And, of course, nothing goes the way Joey expects.

In many ways, Joey is a typical adolescent, struggling with the tensions between immaturity and independence. In others, though, she is very much her own person with a unique family. I loved the way the unusual marriage and relationships are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Joey’s anger is clearly not caused by her having two lesbian mothers. Indeed, the clear love and understanding between her mothers, the way each of them has found her way to an authentic life, are one of Joey’s principal strengths. I also noted very little along the lines of, “girls don’t have anger management issues,” when in fact psychological research shows that girls experience anger as frequently as boys do (but are socialized to suppress it).

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Highly recommended for adults as well as their adolescent children.

 

Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Okorafor’s work invites us into a world of the future, but one in which the foundational culture is not derived from Western Europe but situated in Africa. Her underlying premise is that the Africans of the future, in this case Nigerians, have developed their own rich technologies. Two stand out for me in this novel: harvesting solar and wind energy in the deserts of northern Nigeria; and the heroine herself, whose cyborg body has been extensively augmented. At the same time, herdsmen follow ages-old traditions. In Okorafor’s skillful hands, high tech and ancient ways of life blend into a seamless whole.

 

 

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

The Power of Story

Last night (your Sunday night) I was putting together some material for my patrons. It includes an interview I did years ago with Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire and Daniel Abraham. I was looking into what made the suddenly-very-trendy preternatural romance and adventure novels and going straight to three excellent writers on the topic seemed like a good idea.

It still does. I’m considering picking up my old habit of interviewing writers in groups, to find out what they think and who they are. If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know. In the interim, it may be years since the first novels of these three writers came out, but I made such an excellent choice of interview subject: they’re still all perfect for this difficult year. Good writing trumps tough times, I find.

These days using ‘trumps’ like that makes us think of politicians who lead people astray and make the hard, harder, but I want us to return to the pre-Donald use of the word. It comes from playing card games. Card games, like good light fiction, help when the emotions are really not up to heavy lifting. Still, I’d rather read Carrie or Seanan than play cards this month. Cards may be fun, but COVID is still with us and far too many of my friends are down with it. I want to step into a delightfully frothy werewolf tale or dream of sarcasm in fairyland.

My present to you for the Fourth of July then, is a reminder of the power of books to keep us sane when life goes awry.

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…

The Importance of Folklore

Tonight I’m reading Simon J Bronner’s The Practice of Folklore. Essays toward a Theory of Tradition. I want to rant about the importance of folklore and folkways to our lives. They help us reach out to people and share. They are also magically important in novels, which is why I’m researching the theory right now.

In a chat somewhere online a few days ago, someone stated very firmly that they had invented a fantasy world and that what we knew of this world didn’t apply. In theory, this is true. In practice, however, we (human beings) have things that connect us to the world., In novels, storylines that kinda reflect what we think we know are easier to read. If we think that very green grass means much rain and wonderful grazing (I’ve been dreaming of Ireland) then if we have a wet climate with much grass and a character walks out onto it and it’s hard and dry and fractured, like the Australian outback during a drought, it will be really hard to envisage the world. If we talk about living in houses and how deep the foundations are and then show those houses floating, foundationless, in mid air, we will be fretted and want to find easier reading. One way that some of the bets writers hold worlds together while still challenging what we think we know is to use folklore, popular culture, and folkways. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does this rather wonderfully from one direction and his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does it just as wonderfully from another.

And yet… most folklore studies are descriptions of folklore. I have a pile of photocopied jokes from my father and I used it when someone asked me for a piece on folklore, twentysomething years ago. I described the collection and gave some examples of the jokes. That was my father’s folk collection. My own is food and foodways. I have a rather nice little collection of community cookbooks.

These descriptions and studies are tremendous for writers. They are such vast resources. Nevertheless, it’s studies such as Bonner’s that teach us how to use folklore most effectively. I’m reading Bronner’s book now in order to better analyse fiction, but I own the book as much for my own writing as for my analysis of others.

The more we understand the role folklore, folkways and all their related subjects play in our lives, the more fuel there is for writing and the more joy there is in reading. And now you know what I’m working on for the next three months. Folklore and folkways in just one writer’s work. It’s part of my big project, the sequel to my Story Matrices work. And it’s so much fun. If I can understand theories of tradition, just think of what it does for my own novels, how enriched my worldbuilding will be.

There’s one single extra big and very important component. Nancy Jane Moore reminded me that I promised a post today and told me that it was Juneteenth. Juneteenth is very alien to me, culturally, because I’m Jewish Australian. Australia’s colonial heritage is very different from that of the US. When the US was enmeshed in civil war, we were still a bunch of British colonies. We have our own history and our own days that are equally difficult, but none of them are Juneteenth.

When I find something that foreign and that interesting and that holds that much historical importance, one very good way to explore it is by understanding the folkways and folklore associated with it. It’s a part of cultural respect.

I can’t tell you what to do or think about Juneteenth, but I can tell you that if you want to understand it, you look at the words and the traditions of those whose day it is. That’s step one in learning to tell stories about people from different backgrounds to ourselves. It’s not a matter of learning a date and noting that it’s important, it’s a matter of finding out why it’s important, how it’s important and what cultural fabric surrounds it. Bronner’s book doesn’t talk about Juneteenth at all, but his chapters on other subjects help give me a path to follow as I respectfully start learning.

Exploration and early science fiction

It’s Monday. (I feel very witty when I say things that appear obvious.) There are twists and turns every Monday and this week the small twist is that I’m actually writing this on Monday. Normally I write my Monday blog post very early Tuesday morning, and still post it on US Monday but today… I have nine minutes now and no time then for two hours and then a full hour before midnight, so I’m writing my Monday post on Monday.

The second twist (the big one) is that I’ve only read a bit of the book I’m introducing you to. I don’t have time to finish it right now, and I’m too excited by it to wait to write about it.

There’s a story behind why it’s open on my machine. Of course there’s a story. Someone very proudly told me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t the first work of science fiction. They claimed something from the eighteenth century as the first. I instantly wanted to argue, because the eighteenth century is too early and too late. Approaches matter, and there are at least half a dozen different arguments for this work or that work to be considered science fiction.

It all rests on definitions. What is science fiction? What is fantasy? Are we only talking about modern novels, or are we talking about other types of narrative? There’s a terrific Medieval life of Alexander, where Alexander explores underwater in a bathysphere and loses to the Amazons when he invades and is fed dinner by them and… I talked about it just the other day at a science fiction convention. It’s not one book. It’s many different types of stories in many different books. It’s also very well studied, even though it’s not known nearly well enough in some science fiction circles. Here’s a bibliography prepared by people who know more about it than me (I’ve read two versions, only.)

One can go back further than that, much further, or go forward. There are stories in many languages and from several continents. The trick is to start looking.

Two days ago I decided to look for French books from the seventeenth century. I already know the work where Cyrano goes to the Moon, and it’s fun, but where one book like that is written, there must be others. I used to know several others, but my brain sometimes forgets everything (I think it does it on purpose, to annoy me) so I looked again. I found several things I once had known, and one single book that’s new to me and that’s surprisingly close to home in a number of ways. It’s the one I want to read when I do not have time.

It’s the story of a voyage to Australia. It was published in 1732. Australia was known to many people by then, not least of all the people who had already been living here for the last tens of thousands of years, but Europe, for the most part, thought of it as unknown and exotic. Bits of it had appeared on European maps, and the region now known as South East Asia had contacts, especially up north. So did all the region north of Australia (Papua and PNG in modern parlance), and quite possibly New Zealand and maybe even China. But Europe didn’t pay much attention to what most of these places thought of the southern continent and was only just in the throes of making its own discoveries.

When I was at school, I was taught that there was no knowledge of Australia in Europe until the eighteenth century. Since then, however, the maps from the Dutch and Portuguese have demonstrated very much otherwise. Parts of Australia have been known to parts of Europe since at least the fifteenth century. Here is a map that reflects stuff from an earlier map, to show what was known to those Europeans who had access to this very specialised knowledge.

Of course, contact with Australia from nearby places dates back long before then. One of my students a few years ago was Indonesian and her family had stories about contact with Australia. We visited an exhibition at the National Museum and she was able to point to her island and then to where people from her island travelled to, for trade. How long has that trade been happening? I need to check out archaeological studies, her island began regular contact with northern Australia a long time before Europeans even thought to come to the Great Southern Land.

Before those early maps from Europe, there was talk about Australia. In fact, Europeans have been talking about Australia since at least the time of Cicero. Cicero wrote about it in his science fictional “Somnium Scipionis (“The Dream of Scipio”), which was part of his De Re Publica where Scipio Africanus went to Mars and saw the world laid out. Australians were there as antipodeans, people who walked on the opposite side of the earth. Macrobius took that dream in the fifth century and wrote commentaries on it and those commentaries were used as geographical explanations throughout the Middle Ages.

A fictional account of someone voyaging to Australia in the seventeenth century has, therefore, a really solid background. It was a story based on things other people knew and accepted. That’s why I want to read it. I want to know what people thought about this country at a time when most Europeans saw it as an intellectual conceit or a place only specialist traders knew about.

The preface explains that the writer knew a fair amount about modern (for that time) geography. He makes it very clear that he’s not talking about Java, nor about the Americas. He even names explorers to demarcate their routes and interests. To me, this is the stuff that science fiction is made of. Take current knowledge (proving one’s cutting edge understanding) and then extrapolate and write fiction inspired by it. The extrapolation is invention, and it says more about Europe than about Australia, but it’s no less interesting for that. It describes an invented Australia in the year 1610. The land, the writer says, is more fertile and more populated than Europe.

Now you know why I want to read it. I wish I had time. It’s on my computer, however, and if ever an excuse arises (if someone tells me “I want a talk about this book” or “Give me an article”) then I shall be very grateful to Professor Ron Ridley who gave me the capacity to read seventeenth century French. Let me tell you about that, and then sign off, because it’s heading for midnight here and I do like the thought of finishing my Monday post on Monday itself.

I was doing third year History, as an undergraduate, and I’d been allowed into a fourth year class on Roman historiography, because it wasn’t going to be offered the following year. Ridley noted that I was doing historical French as another subject, and set me an essay that used it. I had to read and analyse 22 volumes of seventeenth century French in a collection of rare books, with only one article about them (in modern French) to help me. It was a lot of work. So much work… By the end of it, I could read seventeenth century French perfectly well. Even if I have no other skills to my name, I have this one. And now that these early novels are available on the web, I have a reason to rediscover that odd little skill of mine. All I need is someone to give me an excuse…