SFWA’s Statement on Artificial Intelligence

On October 30, the SFWA Board and the SFWA Legal Affairs Committee sent the following letter to the US Copyright Office in response to their August 2023 Notice of Inquiry regarding copyright law and policy issues in artificial intelligence, which is part of their AI Initiative.

We are aware that there is a wide range of opinion on the subject within our community, but the issues of known damage to fiction marketplaces and threats to original IP copyrights that these new AI tools pose must be made known to bureaucrats and lawmakers recommending and making policy. By doing so, when consensus emerges about the proper use of generative AI in art, we can ensure that such AI is created and utilized in a way that respects the rights of creative workers.

In the near future, we’ll have the opportunity to read other letters submitted to this call for comments, and both SFWA and individuals will be able to review them and respond. We invite all our members, but especially those writers working in gaming and comics, to make known the effects you are seeing of artificial intelligence on your careers, for good or ill.

We will continue to study this issue and speak up where we feel we can do good. The more we learn from our membership, the more effective we will be.

The SFWA Board

 

 

TEXT OF LETTER

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), formerly Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is, in part, to support, defend, and advocate for writers of science fiction, fantasy and related genres. Formed in 1965, SFWA currently has over 2,500 commercially published writers in those genres across various types of media. Its membership includes writers of both stand-alone works and short fiction published in anthologies, magazines, and in other media. SFWA is not a subsidiary of any other entity. SFWA has no subsidiaries or other ownership interest in any other organization that may be affected by the Copyright Office’s policies on AI.

It is in that capacity that we write this letter in response to the Copyright Office’s call for comment on issues raised by artificial intelligence systems. As creative writers who have long had an eye on the future, we are no strangers to the concept of artificial intelligence; indeed, the work of our members is frequently mentioned by the people who over the years have made progress in that field. We have long anticipated these developments and have thought deeply over the years about its promise and pitfalls. With this in mind, it is with much regret that we cannot yet speak in favor of using AI technology in the business of creating art.

The current crop of artificial intelligence systems owes a great debt to the work of creative human beings. Vast amounts of copyrighted creative work, collected and processed without regard to the moral and legal rights of its creators, have been copied into and used by these systems that appear to produce new creative work. These systems would not exist without the work of creative people, and certainly would not be capable of some of their more startling successes. However, the researchers who have developed them have not paid due attention to this debt. Everyone else involved in the creation of these systems has been compensated for their contributions—the manufacturers of the hardware on which it runs, the utility companies that generate their electrical power, the owners of their data centers and offices, and of course the researchers themselves. Even where free and open source software is used, it is used according to the licenses under which the software is distributed as a reflection of the legal rights of the programmers. Creative workers alone are expected to provide the fruits of their labor for free, without even the courtesy of being asked for permission. Our rights are treated as a mere externality.

Perhaps, then, creative workers uniquely benefit from the existence of these artificial intelligence systems? Unfortunately, to date the opposite has been the case: SFWA has thus far seen mainly harm to the business of writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy as a result of the release of AI systems. Continue reading “SFWA’s Statement on Artificial Intelligence”

Where the past comes to my aid…

I’ve had my COVID update jab today. This means I’ll be clear in a few weeks and can maybe be a bit social. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who are COVID-vulnerable and who has a charming long and painful reaction to the vaccine.

Instead of a real post this week (and maybe next week and the week after, it depends on how long it takes to get through this) I thought you might like something from my past. Three things, in fact. If you scratch below the surface you’ll see a suggestion about how I approach the terrible things happening this month. The posts aren’t about that, however. The posts are about what I was thinking 15-16 years ago. The novels I was writing then were “The Time of the Ghosts” and “Poison and Light.” Both of them are still in print (“The Time of the Ghosts in its umpteenth edition, and “Poison and Light in its first) and the cover of “Poison and Light” contains artwork by Lewis Morley, who entirely understood my thoughts and dreams about the world of the novel. For a change, instead of saying “This book may be out one day, if I’m lucky” I can send you to the exact stories I wrote about, way back then. There aren’t many advantages to getting significantly older, but this is one of them…

(2007-11-26 21:45)

I need to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was still active in the Jewish Community. At work on Friday afternoon I answered the phone and at the other end was a frantic community leader. “Gillian, you have to come to synagogue tomorrow, it’s very important.” He couldn’t tell me why. All he knew was that he had received a phone call from a well-known Melbourne rabbi (who had never met me) saying that Gillian Polack had to be at synagogue on Saturday morning. The rabbi knew I didn’t usually go to Shul, too, and he had said very firmly to “make sure she’s there”.

I couldn’t arrange a lift, so I hopped on my two busses very early and walked the half mile or so at the other end and found the Progressive Service and looked around for any reason I might have been summoned.

In front of me was a visiting cantor (but visiting from overseas – no links with me or mine), the backs of heads of the usual congregants, and about thirty aging pates. The usual congregants kept sneaking back to me to find out why I was there “Is there something happening this afternoon that wasn’t advertised?”

I whispered a question about the thirty heads to one of them and he whispered back “visitors from Melbourne, doing a tour – nothing to do with the cantor.” Somewhere in that crowd of heads probably lay my answer.

The service ended. Everyone stood up. The visiting group turned round to survey the back of the hall. I heard a woman’s voice cry, “There she is,” and one elderly lady ploughed out of the mob and towards me. The others all followed, like sheep. Some of them knew me, most of them were simply following their natural leader.

Valda is a friend. Except that it’s now “Valda was a friend”. I don’t believe it yet. Mum told me about her funeral just fifteen minutes ago.

She was nearly ninety and we just got on well. We snarked together at conferences and we stirred her kid brother (a close friend of my father’s and another friend of mine – the two of us have stood to the side at parties and brought down the tone of the proceedings since I was a teen) and we did a lot of very good volunteer work together. She died in her sleep, her life a resounding success.

I will miss Valda for a very very long time. And I will always remember how many people went into operation to make sure we got to chat when she was in Canberra. She could have rung me or she could have told my mother, but Valda simply told everyone she wanted to see me and – because it was Valda and we all loved her – everyone made sure it happened.

I will also never ever forget that horde of touring retirees descending on me. I was a whistle-stop for the Canberra part of their bus trip. And I bet Valda knew this when she called out “There she is.”

For the record, the questions were mostly about my Melbourne family. Also for the record, I asked in response “You’ve been away for a week and you miss them?” Valda hasn’t even been away a week and already there’s a hole in my life.

Nicola Griffith’s Menewood

Cover of Menewood, a novel by Nicola Griffith, showing Hild.I have been waiting to read Nicola Griffith’s Menewood since I finished Hild not long after it first came out in 2013. I grabbed Menewood as soon as my bookstore got it in this month and I read all 700+ pages (including notes) over about five days despite a long things-to-do list.

It was worth the wait. Not only that, reading it makes it clear that writing a book that is so deep and complex takes time. I’m not at all sure it could have been written any faster. It’s a sequel, and for that reason it works best if you read Hild first, but it isn’t like so many book series where each one is constructed in the same pattern.

The two books are historical fiction based on the very real St. Hilda of Whitby.  Griffith has written a woman — and in fact, a number of women — with agency while still writing a book that is very much embedded in its times.

This is a book set in 7th century England which shows all the ways that women of that time mattered.

Two things in particular struck me while reading: the writing and some undercurrents about power.

First the writing. I should say that I read every sentence, every word — no rushing over paragraphs of description to get to the action as I am wont to do, especially when reading historical fiction or big fat fantasy. This book repays that kind of attention, because there is something important in all those words, something that advances the story.

Griffith wrote an essay recently on writing immersive historical fiction that makes clear how she approached this book. In that essay, she says:

As a writer, I bring the reader into my fictional world through the characters’ physical, embodied experience. What a character feels, what they notice of their world—and how they feel about it—tells the reader a vast amount, and it creates empathy.

She does exactly that. Pleasure, daily chores, injury, hard labor, death — all are vivid in this book.

But that physicality is woven in with the politics, the wars, and the work of making sure everyone was clothed and fed and housed in a time long before the industrial tools that made some of that labor easy.

And all of that is woven into what is known of the history, so that even though this is a fictional story, it does not swear at the things we know of the past. Continue reading “Nicola Griffith’s Menewood

News and thoughts about the news

Why do I have trouble announcing cool things? Why is it so very difficult to tell you all that I’m on two short lists?

The first list is for an Australian award for my book Story Matrices (edited by Francesca Barbini), and the second is an international one for the Sidewise Award (alt history) for my Medieval story in the amazing Other Covenants short story collection. The short story is “Why the Bridgemasters of York Don’t Pay Taxes,” edited by Andrea D. Lobel and Mark Shainblum (who I finally met, just the other day). Both lists are wonderful to be on. I’m unlikely to win either.

While both are most excellent, the Sidewise in particular is a wonderful moment. Even I can’t deny that.

There is a special, special honour in being listed along with these amazing writers. It’s taken me days to admit this. Partly this is because I’ve not had much comment either short listing. Six people have told me how pleased they are about the William Atheling one, and one of those six is my mother. Another is the editor. This means I feel a bit invisible. Partly this is because there are far better writers than me and it’s easier to talk about them than to talk about my own work. Also, partly this is because Australia is a bit odd. Some people get big shouts for all their accomplishments… I am not one of those people. One day I will discover why, but until that day comes, I will assume my writing is just not that good. There is a lot of encouragement for me to think that and very little for me to think otherwise. Except from German academics, but that’s another story.

However… there are things that no-one’s asked me about my short story and this is the moment to spill the beans. In order for me to spill the beans you need to know about my short story and about one of my novels. Bridgemasters was only released in December last year. The novel is The Green Children Help Out, which came out in 2021. The reason I thought my Bridgemasters story would go unnoticed was because the Green Children went pretty much unseen. There was, however, a much bigger reason for it going unseen than my self-doubt. COVID lockdowns and quiet hit me harder than some, because I was unable to go to any events face to face (I’m COVID-vulnerable), and in Australia it’s almost impossible to reach readers unless they see and talk to you, I’ve found. The story and the novel are linked. In fact, I wrote the Bridgemasters story (and a couple of others) as a testing ground for the world I was building for the Bridgemasters story. They’re quite different, but they’re set in the same alternate Earth. I wanted to know what sort of cultural underpinnings my English Jewish characters would have in this alternate Earth. I test these things in a number of ways, and I build the world gently and carefully, then I let it rip with a story or two. The other stories are in the volume of my collected short stories (Mountains of the Mind), which was also short listed for an award. I am obviously not good at learning.

I thought my Green Children novel was good, but I didn’t think my Bridgemasters story was anything more than a small fun piece, translating late Medieval Christian thought into a world inhabited by Jews that a very particular group of Christians are forced to protect. This just shows that some writers are not good judges of their own work. It also shows that being mainly confined to a tiny physical world for three years was not the end of the known universe. I’m working on a gentle and slow emergence. We’ll see if that changes anything.

I should just have said, “Look! Announcements!” If I win either (unlikely) I promise to do that. In the meantime, I hope a few more readers see my work and make up their own minds about it. Quite obviously I’m not the right person to advise on whether to read my work!

The Joy of Past Food

I had such a fine idea for a blogpost for today. Unfortunately my fine idea came at 3 am and I wrote a charming and profoundly meaningful post in my sleep. I’ve spent the whole of today trying to recall it. I’m running out of time, so instead of the charming and profoundly meaningful post, you’re getting an introduction to the book I found on my coffee table. Its spine is held together with packing tape, Its cover is falling off despite the packing tape. It’s basically a blank cookbook for a home cook, with recipes added over time. About half the pages have recipes.

A friend gave it to me the other day, and I haven’t had time to decipher it yet, so everything I say here is a discovery.

It was used over two generations (possibly longer) because there is some copperplate and some italic script. The first newspaper clipping it it has a recipe from Jean Bowring. This means it’s an Australian recipe collection, and the Bowring recipe is from the late 50s or early 60s. The clip itself has no date, but Bowring had her own foodie TV show from 1957-1960. There’s a recipe dated 1940, which is celery seed for rheumatism. These are the only two entries with clear dating.

This is a household collection of the type women have been making since at least the 17th century and I love it. The 1940 recipe is written in a hand that’s a spiky version of one of my aunt’s, which makes me wonder if the writer was a young housewife in the 1940s, since my aunt was born in 1919, and it’s a nicely modern hand.

Let me see what else I can find.

There are no recipes in the soups/fish section or the first pages of the poultry/meat section. The first recipe in the poultry/meat section is the cheesecake recipe from the TV personality. I’ve seen this in other books like this from Australia, and I have a family story that suggests that a lot of the everyday food cooked by Australian women (and occasionally Australian men) were not that complex and required learning techniques rather than following recipes. This somewhat explains why the early pages are so very random.

My cousin Edith, who was a fully-trained doctor, but whose qualifications were not ever accepted in Australia, was a paid nurse in my Great-Aunt Gussie’s (Augusta) household. Gussie and she had a bit of an argument about throwing bones out with meat on them. Vienna had been going through hard times and Australia had not, so it was Edith who pointed out the good food that was being thrown away. This led to that and Gussie accused Edith of not being able to cook. Edith pointed out that she had to leave her cookbook at home when she fled. Gussie said “You don’t need a cookbook to cook dinner.” I was taught both the techniques and how to use cookbooks, so I understood both Edith and my great-aunt when Edith told me about the incident. I have several of Edith’s family recipes in my own little collection, but nothing from Gussie – she lived from 1872 to 1940. Her two children were two of my favourite relatives and Linda, the eldest, lived from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. This explains why I know a bit more about Victorian and Edwardian home cookery than most people born in the 1960s.

More clues and fewer family stories? Let me look past the newspaper clipping. The first handwritten recipes are very Australian. There’s a copha cake recipe. I haven’t seen anything like it in years. It’s a quick cake and perfectly suitable to make in a hurry when friends drop in unexpectedly. It has copha (of course) sugar, egg, self-raising flour and vanilla for flavouring. Nserted next to them are two recipes for plain cakes with butter rather than copha, in the handwriting Melbourne schoolchildren learned in the 1940s. Cakes and more cakes follow, all very straightforward and all cakes I’ve made or very like cakes I’ve made. Also a recipe for Snow Balls given to the owner of the book by Phyllis, The snow balls are sugar, gelatine and boiling water, dipped in a sauce and rolled in coconut. These days we buy them (and by ‘these days’ I go right back to the 1960s) and they’re dipped in chocolate before the coconut. Puddings, patris, cakes – all the standard sweet stuff made for a young family.

There are some older recipes hidden among the really familiar ones. When I was doing research into Georgian recipes, I discovered cooked salad dressing This book not only has one of these, but it describes one of the ingredients as sack. I don’t know if this was copied from an older collection or if it was a family or friend’s recipe, but it’s a nineteenth century salad dressing. It’s possible that the book itself goes back that far, but I don’t think it does. There is also a recipe for growing household potatoes using a kerosene tin, which the handwriting suggests is 1940s or a bit later.

Most of the recipes are written using pencil or fountain pen. The fountain pen work is mixed – ther are amazingly skilled hands and one that is bigger and more random. Every single hand, however, is better than mine. (I still can’t date fountain pen writing as exactly as I used to be able to date Mediveal hands – this is an to my self-esteem.)

Some recipes repeat (snow balls!) and some are annotated by a later, more italic hand. And the recipes are so, so familiar: nutloaf, lemon tarts, mock cream filling, puddings (which are called desserts these days), icecream, shortbread, pumpkin scones, gingerbread, lamingtons, kisses, cream puffs, meringues … and we carried over from the other section into the pudding section, so suddenly the recipes all match the tag on the side. Given that the first recipes after the ‘pudding’ tag are all in older handwriting (that looks as if it might be early 20th century) I suspect that the desserts and cakes overwhelmed their place and walked backwards into the earlier section. I suspect this because the handwriting is a bit more recent in the earlier section.

The page containing recipes for pumpkin and cheese scones is so used that it’s falling out of the book, which is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the fact that I was taught how to make almost all these things as a child in the 1960s. Before I was ten, to be honest. I can still make them, but seldom bother any more. I don’t eat much sweet stuff, and most other people don’t know to demand chocolate fudge cake or strawberry short cake. This means Australian foodways have changed this century and were far more constant for the first 7-8 decades of last century.

This little cookbook is so very well-used. I wonder if it was how children were taught in that family? My mother started keeping a collection of recipes when we would bug her to do our own cooking, so having something like this where you could just say to a child “Don’t burn yourself on the oven” would have been very handy, and would explain the stains.

Suddenly there are fewer spots on each page and the recipes are jam and marmalade. We didn’t use recipes for jam or marmalade (or for most biscuits and some cakes) but these recipes are still familiar. I used to love making fig jam with fresh ginger and one of my favourite jams ever was pear and ginger. This book contains both. I used to love the jam so much, in fact, that I no longer make it. Jam is not diabetic-friendly. In fact, even the thought of making all the best jams is probably not diabetic friendly, so I am closing the book and leaving you to dream of Australian food, which is, I think, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s.

On the Bookish Life

I spend two hours a day exercising. This will not make me slender or muscular or fit or fabulous. It will, however, enable me to get out of bed safely, to walk up the street, to cook, to work. On a bad day, I do at least a half hour. On a good day, whenever I need even a 3 minute pause in work, I do stretches. Some bodies require greater effort than others to do the everyday. Mine is one of them. Every day I do these exercises means less pain the next day. Each day I give in and stay sitting at the computer or the television or talking on the phone or lying in bed means that the next day will be … not good.

Why am I telling you this? I increasingly notice a problem with the way people who have invisible disabilities are treated. We need to talk about it. A blogpost is a good way of beginning a conversation when one is limited of movement. This is that post.

I use a walking stick mainly so that the rest of the world can see that I’m not capable of the things they think I ought to do. I can’t run a 100 metres at breakneck speed the way I did as a teen. On a bad day, even walking to the bus is a vast endeavour and it really helps when the bus doesn’t stop 100 metres away from the bus stop. It takes me time and effort to walk that 100 metres and… some buses don’t want to wait that long. If the driver can see the effort by looking at the walking stick, then they will stop where I’m waiting and both the bus driver and myself are happier.

Today I wish that the walking stick principle applied to my letterbox. It was bitterly cold this morning and I entirely understand the post office delivery person wanting to move as quickly as possible, but the card they left me in lieu of ringing my doorbell means I have to walk for over a kilometre to retrieve a parcel. Then I have to walk back again.

The walking stick is a critical piece of equipment, and so are the exercises. I shall do them assiduously every day until I’m able to walk up the street and get that parcel.

Every day is a set of calculations. Can I do this today? What do I need to do in order to be able to that the day after tomorrow? The more I exercise the fewer of these computations I have to make. The more I am willing to label myself as visibly disabled, the more condescending many people are, and the more I am actually able to do stuff.

I don’t get many face to face gigs any more. My writing income is significantly reduced as a result. This is rather annoying side effect of the walking stick announcement. So many organisers begin asking the most physically capable people on their lists for their events. The most physically capable of us get the work, they get the income and they get the book sales. I am still asked for online gigs (sometimes even with money attached!), but face to face in my own locality? Rarely.

It’s not that people hate me. Audiences, in fact, really like me. It’s that a lot of us are described as ‘difficult’ because we can’t do all the things, all the time. My local bookshop made up excuses when I asked them for a book launch two years ago. My audiences are good and my sales are good with those audiences (in one case there were 83 people and all the books sold out within ten minutes) but the bookshop (and writers’ centres, and community centres, and a lot of local community groups) like to organise events with someone who will come to meetings face to face. If you can’t, but can still come to the event, it’s considered not good enough. This is especially true for free events. If I’m willing to give my time but not able to meet all the other demands (“Come in today for a meeting, please”, “Can we do this online?” “No, not really. Besides, you’re local. It’s no effort for you.”) … I’m not asked again.

This is interesting for other reasons. One of the booksellers in question actually told me I should accept reduced royalties because the 50% of the cover price they got wasn’t enough for all their overheads. They were being paid for the function in question: I was not. The function promoted my books and writers are simply expected to work without pay for the vast majority of promotional events. Without pay and usually without meals. If the book launch is during a meal time, I’ve been asked to cook food for the audience, but I can’t eat myself because … it’s a performance and I need to be available to answer questions and explain the book and… all the things.

The disabilities are not the only problem then. The heart of the matter is that writers are expected to have day jobs or other sources of income. Most people see us as kind of serious amateurs, rather than as professionals.

This changes the way we do things. For me, there’s a rather special side effect given by these experiences. Since I worked out why my local income was way less than it should be and my local presence is way less than it should be, I can’t buy all the books I want. I simply don’t have the money. I prioritise what I buy. Where there are two books I want to read and I can only afford one, I will buy the one where the writer faces similar obstacles to me. Or where the writer is from a country where they have to fight an entirely different range of obstacles.

There is a really good side to all of this: my book collection sparkles with exciting work by authors who ought to be well known but are not.

I need to get back to those book posts and introduce you to some of them!

Book Review: AMERICAN GHOST by Hannah Nordhaus

Ghost stories are an American obsession. We gobble them like smores around a campfire, with the wind whistling through the tree branches in the darkness behind us and unidentifiable noises keeping our nerves tingling. Hannah Nordhaus’s American Ghost is not quite that kind of spooky, though she shares her adventures from attempts to communicate with the spirit world to rummaging through crumbling historic documents and spending a night in a haunted bedroom hoping for a glimpse of her ancestor, Julia Staab.

Julia is famous for haunting a 19th century Victorian mansion in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today that mansion is part of La Posada de Santa Fe, a luxury resort hotel, which openly celebrates its resident ghost. With a journalist’s determination, Nordhaus pursues the facts about Julia: whether she really haunts the Staab house, who she was in life, and how as a young bride she came from a small village in Germany to live in territorial Santa Fe with her new husband.

Abraham Staab, a man of modest means from the same German village, emigrated to America as a teenager and began amassing a fortune importing dry goods along the Santa Fe Trail and selling them to the the frontiersmen and military posts of New Mexico. By the time he returned to Germany to find a wife, he was well-to-do. Sixteen years later he was one of the wealthiest men in New Mexico, and he built an elaborate three-story mansion as a fitting home for Julia and their seven children.

In the absence of any diary or correspondence from Julia herself, Nordhous hunts for clues among the papers and oral history of Julia’s descendants, newspapers of Julia’s day, records of Julia’s physician, and the places where she lived. As she searches for elusive details about Julia’s life, the author is haunted by questions. Are the rumors of Julia’s madness true? Did the loss of a child drive her over the edge? Was she imprisoned in her home—perhaps even murdered—by her husband? Does her restless spirit walk the halls of her mansion, seeking some part of herself that is forever missing?

For a New Mexican who loves Santa Fe and its history, this book is a delightful exploration of a tempestuous period. The West was very wild when Julia arrived. As one of the few “American” women in Santa Fe, she played an important part in the evolution of the city toward a more civilized, if not yet entirely tamed, community. Her story is poignant and laced with the inevitable sadness of life, yet Julia remains an inspiring figure, and the reader cannot help being caught up in the hope that she will find peace at last.

And as the author of a series of novels featuring a haunted house in Santa Fe, I enjoyed every page of this book. I cannot help imagining Julia waltzing with my Captain Dusenberry in the third-floor ballroom of the Staab mansion (which is no longer there – it burned many years ago – but fortunately the rest of the house was saved). I am utterly delighted that we have secured La Posada as the headquarters for an event this fall – the Wisteria Tearoom Investigation – which will celebrate both Captain Dusenberry and Julia Staab.

Australia’s early cookbook history

I was going to talk about the World Cup and countries that have played with the haka but… it’s such a big subject. It was such a stupid thing to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about plagiarism by politicians. Well, one bit of plagiarism, by one politician. That will reduce the subject to manageable size.

The book that contains the plagiarism is Australia’s first published cookbook, first printed in 1864. Except that it isn’t. Apparently there is an earlier (1843) printed volume, “The Housewife’s Guide” but the Australian Food Timeline claims that Abbott’s is really the first, as it was compiled entirely in Australia. Here is the article about The Housewife’s Guide. When you finish reading my description of the first recognised-as-Australian cookbook, you can make your own decision about the status of the book and of its politically-inclined author. I agree with the author of this article.

So… back to plagiarism.

Let’s start with an introduction to the author. He was well-known in his day, but remembered only for the cookbook. Edward Abbott was the author. He came to Australia with his family in 1815. He was a grazier, foodie, politician, coroner and apparently tried to raise Tasmanian tigers as pets. He also assaulted the Premier of the State (at that time its own colony) with an umbrella.

The cookbook itself reflects his character. It contains recipes for the infamous “Blow My Skull” punch, another drink called Tears of the Widow of Malabar which contains an inordinate amount of brandy, and also practical recipes such as how to roast wombats and to cook kangaroo brains in emu fat. These are the examples used when modern writers talk about the book.

All this sounds lovely. Perfect food history fodder. Why do I look across at 300 pages of recipes and cry “Plagiarism”? Even today, recipes attract a lower level of copyright than, say, tour guides. Just as long as the writer doesn’t use the exact words and the footnotes and whole passages that describe exotic places… using other peoples’ words. Of course, a politician (even an eccentric one) would not do such a thing.

There are quite a few sections that would be useful to look at (all of them very entertaining), but I’m going to choose the one where I identified the precise book Mr Abbott ‘borrowed’ from. It was part of the volume, and also  issued as a standalone little book by Aboott himself. It’s called, Hebrew Cookery, by An Australian.

Technically, it’s Australia’s first Jewish cookbook. This is, unlike the complete volume being Australia’s first cookbook in general, undoubted. The reason for ‘technically’ is it’s a section of another larger cookbook and that whole section is taken from A Lady’s (Judith Montefiore was the author) The Jewish manual, or, Practical information in Jewish and modern cookery : with a collection of valuable recipes & hints relating to the toilette. 

I appear to be the first person to have mentioned this online (and maybe the first person to spot the plagiarism) but that was some years ago and I didn’t actually publish an article about the discovery because I had other things on my mind and since then a couple of other people have identified that yes, Edward Abbott is a plagiarist. A very distinguished and rather dead plagiarist.

To sum up, parts of  The English and Australian Cookery BookCookery for the Many, as Well as for the “Upper Ten Thousand” are stolen. Whole sections, in fact. The one I know best is the first stolen English Jewish cookbook published for Australians… by a politician. Abbott was not Jewish, for the record.

I identified the plagiarism by trying to work out how Melbourne lost an ingredient in Abbott’s cookbooks and, in the process, I discovered that we never had it. Jewish cooking in London used chorissa as an ingredient, but none of the Sephardi Jews who moved to Melbourne in the 19th century could buy it anywhere. Once I realised that the footnote explaining that one could by chorissa (kosher chorizo) at a kosher butcher was not Australian, but referred to London, it took me about five minutes to find the original book that contained that footnote.

Why was I looking for it? I’m so glad you asked. I did an academic paper (someone at Sydney University really wanted it) in 2007 on my family’s English Jewish heritage. The cookbook that all these wonderful Jewish dishes were stolen from was very close to many of my grandmother’s recipes. She didn’t get them from Abbott, however – they were the family’s London-origin cooking. This might explain why he stole that cookbook. I have yet to find a sensible explanation of why Abbott ‘borrowed’ from books about famous places in the world.

Some of the (supposedly) first Australian cookbook is, indeed, Australian, but the rest of it shows very nicely what books Edward Abbott thought were important and had access to.

The National Library of Australia has online copies of both Abbott’s whole book and the “Hebrew” section that was published separately. I’m letting you know just in case you’ve always wanted a recipe for “Blow My Skull.”

PS I feel I ought to add that Abbott himself acknowledges his source in the smaller publication. he claims that the book was out of print (I’m not convinced it was) and that the wider community needed to taste Jewish cooking. I have this wistful dream that he visited Melbourne and was scolded by my great-great-grandmother.

A Potpourri of Book Reviews

Here are a few books I’ve read recently.  Some I’ve enjoyed more than others. I’ll start with a rave:

 

Daughter of Redwinter, by Ed McDonald (Tor) What a great read! From the first page, this book grabbed me and carried me along. Superb action, wonderful characters, ever-escalating stakes, and mystery. The story opens with Raine, our heroine, creeping out the back way from a monastery under military siege, looking for an escape route, only to encounter a mysterious wounded woman who is desperate to get back in. On the woman’s heels are a group of warrior-magicians, bent on stopping her even if it means tearing down the walls. The military besiegers are willing to aid the magicians, but what they’re after is inside — people with “grave-sight” that allows them to see, and sometimes speak with, the dead. Raine is one of those with the talent that means execution, should it be discovered. All her life she has hidden, lied, and run away to save her skin, and she’s made some spectacularly bad choices along the way.

The book was full of drama and poignant emotion, hard-bitten action and sweet romance. The balance between slowly unfolding mystery, lightning reversals and betrayals, and coming of age of a most remarkable heroine was exceptionally well handled. Most of all, from the very first paragraphs, I found myself relaxing into the hands of a master storyteller, confident that wherever the tale took me, it would be a wild and infinitely satisfying ride. I was never disappointed.

 

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell (Tordotcom) “The crew of the Rosebud are, currently, and by force of law, a balloon, a goth with a swagger stick, some sort of science aristocrat possibly, a ball of hands, and a swarm of insects.” Although they’re not human, at least not in their current form, they’re most definitely people. And they’re fanatically devoted to The Company, which for 300 years has placed them out in the back acres of space. When they come upon a mysterious black sphere, they arrive at a plan, after much squabbling: to capture the object for the Company, thereby earning lots of praise.

But the object is not what anyone might expect; it has the ability manipulate probability and time-lines, thereby controlling the crew of the Rosebud by selecting the futures with the most benign outcomes. As the crew attempts to understand what’s happening to them, their own pasts are revealed, as well as the less-than-benign nature of the Company.

I loved how the crew figures out that their memories are unreliable and what the object doing. In the end, however, I found the “universe-changing” revelations opaque. I wanted to like and understand the story, but ended up just not getting it, which is never a good feeling to leave a reader with.

 

Dark Earth, by Rebecca Stott (Random House). I requested this book from Netgalley based on the description. I loved the idea of an underworld of rebel women living secretly amid the ruins. Alas, the opening was so sedate and the characters so bland and unrelatable, I gave up in the middle of the second chapter. There simply wasn’t enough to keep me reading. By contrast, the next book I picked up grabbed me right away, so I saw no reason to take another look.


The Hundred Loves of Juliet, by Evelyn Skye (Del Rey) What a great premise — Romeo and Juliet, reincarnated many times over the centuries, always drawn together and always linked in tragedy. In an added twist, Romeo is immortal and remembers all his previous loves. He knows, for example, that whoever Juliet is in any given lifetime, she will die within two years. Juliet, on the other hand, has no idea of their history together. Now in the 21st Century, writer “Juliette” and sea captain “Romeo” find themselves thrown together by fate and consuming attraction. Can they break the cycle?

Well, maybe, if he would just sit down with her and have a candid conversation. Clearly, he’s failed to do that before, only to watch his beloved-of-this-century die, usually horribly. You would think he’d learn from his disasters. Of all the failings of a typical romance novel, the stupidity of keeping secrets ranks top of my list. Even if “Juliet” thinks he’s delusional and doesn’t believe him, at least he would have given her a rationale for him walking away from her. Which he tries to do, but because she has no idea why, it doesn’t work.

I had other quibbles, including the passages supposedly diaries and so forth from past centuries but laden with contemporary sensibilities, that the heroine tries way too hard to be likeable, that the hero is an example of “female-gaze” and not a real person. Although the prose is for the most part pretty good, it slips into tone deafness all too often.

I suspect that this is a romance with fantastic elements, rather than a reincarnation/time-travel fantasy with a love story, and that science fiction/fantasy readers like myself will have a much harder time with it than romance readers. Regardless, I gave up around the 24% mark. I simply didn’t care what happened next as long as the characters were being so dishonest with each other and themselves.

 

Blood of the Pack (Dark Ink Tattoo Book One), by Cassie Alexander (Caskara Press). My introduction to the works of Cassie Alexander was the “Nightshifted” series (in which a nurse discovers a new career path in a secret hospital ward for supernatural patients). I loved how she handled nonhuman characters, great dramatic tension, and smooth prose. So I picked up this first book in a new series without knowing much about it beyond the lots-of-queer sex content warnings. I found many of the elements I’d previously enjoyed, including characterization and great action sequences. The sex scenes were better done than usual for “high heat” stories. There was a nice balance in tension between a satisfying landing level for the first novel in a series on the one hand, and enough of a cliff-hanger so the reader will be left hungry for the next. My personal quibble, and other readers may feel quite differently, was that the sex scenes took up a disproportionate amount of space for what they contributed to the plot. I think this has to do with what different readers look for. If it’s a (in this case) action-mystery with sex scenes that enhance that plot, or if it’s very juicy sex scenes that make sense in terms of character and motivation. As I said, the scenes are very well done, great examples of how to write literate, well-paced intimate encounters. I especially liked the depiction of consent, the mutuality of pleasure, and the care of the partners for one another.

And of course, if that sex comes with vampire and werewolves, oh my, so much the better.

 

And I’ll end with more raves…

 

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words, by Eddie Robson (Tordotcom).  I loved this fresh and wonderful take on human-alien cultural clashes! This alien race, the Logi, are approximately humanoid in appearance and possess valuable technology. They’re fascinated by human culture, especially the arts and printed books. The catch is that they communicate telepathically through specially trained “Thought Language” translators. One such is our heroine, Lydia, from a poor British background. She loves her work, the only thing she’s ever been really good at, not to mention her generous salary and her sensitive, thoughtful boss, the Logi cultural attaché. All this makes it worth feeling drunk from translating between Thought Language and English. It all goes to hell when her boss is murdered and she’s the prime suspect. Both her freedom and her ability to solve the mystery depend on her remaining at the Embassy, and the Logi is charge has never liked her.

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words combines alien contact science fiction, a sympathetic heroine, weird maybe-supernatural stuff, and a highly complex mystery filled with surprises and reversals. I found Lydia, with all her insecurities, bravura, and gullibility, deeply sympathetic. I fell for the same deceptions and cheered her on as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. This is a smart science fictional mystery and a wonderful take on how even truly weird aliens and humans can find understanding and common ground. Best of all, a deeply flawed character prevails at the end.

 

Three Miles Down, by Harry Turtledove (Tor).  At the height of the Cold War and on the brink of the 1974 Watergate scandal, the US discovers a sunken Soviet submarine…and something they didn’t expect. Something they want to keep even more secret. Under the guise of harvesting undersea manganese nodules, they recruit a team of experts, including marine biology grad student and aspiring science fiction author, Jerry Stieglitz. After being sworn to secrecy, Jerry learns the secret-inside-the-secret: the Soviet sub is sitting on top of an alien spaceship. They want Jerry not only to bolster their disguise when Soviet warships come to check them out but to use his writerly imagination in interacting with the ship and its inhabitants, both dead and in suspended animation. His insight (derived from the scene at the doors of Moria, “speak friend and enter”) opens the door to the ship, for example. Of course, all does not go swimmingly. These are the days of anticommunist paranoia, an increasingly embattled POTUS, and paranoid intelligence agencies. The stakes for Jerry are not just being kicked off a lucrative and historic mission, but survival itself.

Turtledove is a terrific writer, combining sfnal First Contact elements, humor, the unfolding domestic political drama, and human interactions, whether it’s Jerry’s friendships with the others on his alien-spaceship team or his difficulties with his fiancée when he goes missing for months. All this is highly enjoyable, fast reading, but what I found most delightful were the many homage-to-science-fiction touches, like a love letter to fans. There’s even a guest appearance by a well-known hard science fiction author (I won’t divulge who!) that had me laughing out loud at how brilliant the portrayal was. (I’d met the guest-appearance author and yet, that’s exactly what they’d say!)

 

 The Assassins of Thasalon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Subterranean). I first fell in love with…isn’t that the best way to begin a book review? In the case of Lois McMaster Bujold, the love affair goes back to Ethan of Athos (1986) and Falling Free (1988) Once Miles Vorkosigian burst upon the scene, I was thoroughly hooked. The Curst of Chalion, the first novel set in the World of Five Gods, saved me one convention (I think it was a WorldCon) when I ended up with a concussion from getting slammed in the head by a heavy glass door. I stayed an extra night, reading and re-reading, marveling at the layers of richness. But I digress: Chalion was followed by the equally awesome Paladin of Souls, then The Hallowed Hunt, and—about 100 years earlier in chronology—the Penric and Desdemona novellas. I gobbled them all up, although Chalion retains a special, perhaps concussion-inspired, place in my heart.

Penric is this world’s version of a healer/cleric, both aspects being supernaturally inspired by his god, the Bastard, and the many-generations-old temple demon, Desdemona, who shares his mind and, occasionally, his body. Through her, he can tap into magical powers as well as the experience and memories of her former hosts. “Demon” has a different connotation here than the one typically used. While she is definitely a non-material being, she was born of chaos and has been shaped into a person by her relationships with her human hosts. She’s also sly and sarcastic, although she would never admit to being loving.

Which brings us to the latest adventure, novel-length instead of the previous novellas. The set-up is framed as a mystery: who is trying to assassinate Penric’s brother-in-law, the exiled, brilliant general? In the process of tracking down the attempted murder and preventing further attacks, Pen and Desdemona uncover a plot that goes right to the heart of what makes a person, and what part does the right use of power (or the atrocities of its misuse) play? In too many fantasy stories, characters lack family ties, or they have them, the families are off-stage and forgotten. Not so in this series. Penric lives in a matrix of people he loved and who love him, sometimes as vividly present when he is hundreds of miles away as when they’re in the same scene.

Bujold is such a skillful writer, her work is a joy to read. I’m hooked on the first page, wanting to read faster to find out what happens next and yet wanting to read slowly to savor all the nuances. She plays fair with giving the reader all the necessary information, but she doesn’t berate, lecture, or inflict long explanations. Beneath the mystery-plot, there are layers and layers of story-gold. Although I rejoiced at the novel length, the end still came too soon.

Like the previous Penric and Desdemona stories, this one can be read as a stand-alone, although the references to previous happenings and off-stage characters would be enhanced by having read the adventures that involve them. On the other hand, as an entry drug, it’s a grand excuse to sample this world and its people, and then run off and delve into what has come before.

Highly recommended.

Learning About Our Writing

Sometimes, the best way of understanding our writing is through the eyes of others.

Let’s look first at one star reviews. Some writers read them and fall into a pit of despair. This is not a wise approach to those reviews.

A one star review shows what that reader hates. They’re amazingly good value at telling me that these people are not part of my audience. Five star reviews show the opposite. This is why I need to read all my reviews. I read them to find out where my audience lies and how they read (or don’t read) me.

Let em give an example. The reader who wanted a more obviously Medieval Middle Ages in Langue[dot]doc 1305 didn’t want a Middle Ages that was written by a Medieval historian who specialised in the cultural and social side of things. He (I’m thinking of a particular review) probably wanted one that touched on all the feelings and images of the Middle Ages that popular culture shares. I was explaining, through my novel, that the actual past is infinitely more interesting and complex and often more subtle than the way the public tends to think about the Middle Ages, so my novel was not for him.

This is not a criticism. The views readers share don’t have to be my views. They don’t even have to be within a half a continent of my views. Different likes and dislikes in books are important.

I like expanding my small world, and so I look out for books by writers who are from vastly different backgrounds to me, but… I still mostly read speculative fiction right now, just as I read mostly Russian authors at one point in my teens. We all have our favourite types of story and ways of telling stories, and these inform our book choices and to criticise someone for disliking a book that’s entirely outside the range of things they enjoy is to waste everyone’s time.

What about critical reviews? The ones by experts who are famous for looking under a book’s surface and pulling them to pieces? They carry the same caveat: I have to know whether the reviewer enjoys my kind of writing to know if they’ve tackled it fairly. Even then, even if they’ve written about me because they must and not because they want to, all critical reviews are very useful to writers. They give insights into what others think we’ve done. At their best, those insights can be profound.

These reviews are why I’m pleased with my little academic study, Story Matrices. I wrote it at an impossible time and so it could have been an impossible book. It’s not visible enough because things are still a bit impossible at my end of things. When it’s visible, the analytical reviews of it show me that I did what I set out to do.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t find problems with my work. One complained about the short chapters, but for me, those chapters were to enable general readers to dip in and out of it and not to be intimated by some of the concepts. I give a nod to the criticism, because the reviewer was right in that the chapters were tiny. He loved one chapter in particular (the one about Irish fantasy) whereas other reviewers have loved other chapters. I used a range of examples to explain my research, and some were really obviously science fiction or fantasy and some were not, but all are important to SFF.

The examples I used echo in so many other stories. Each critical reviewer so far has loved a different set of those examples. This one loves the Irish chapter, and another loves the discussion of Regency fantasy, and still another told everyone about how I explain the Potter universe. So far, not a single critic has panned the work (this will change over time – I rejoice while I may) and none of them have been at all negative about the explanations I use to describe world building and writing and shared experience. So… I’ve learned about how my work is seen from a number of directions, and I hear that it is good.

I didn’t think it was. Being invisibly disabled, has, since COVID, carried a huge price in terms of local visibility and even friendships with local writers. On bad days, it feels as if the world is walking over my grave. On good days, it feels as if I’m a beginner writer starting out and have to contact everyone and let them know I exist all over again.

I don’t want to give up my writing right now because, although I can’t even attend a book launch locally. Why can’t I attend? Most people at book events in Australia don’t take tests, wear masks, or even know what the ventilation is like. In Canberra, specifically, not being visible means I don’t get lifts and there is no public transport near me any more and I can’t do what my sister told me “Walk a few blocks further” because I literally can’t walk even half that distance right now. Loads of reasons and I feel small every time I have to ask, again, about any of it. This is what makes me feel small about my writing, not the one star reviews.

What balances this invisibility? Why, visibility, of course. Every time I attend an online SF convention (Octocon, Balticon, Boskone, Eastercon, Konline, Punctuation and more – these are all full of wonderful people and fascinating programmes) I am surrounded by friends and, through being on panels, get a share of the most interesting discussions. This also applies to academic conferences. I attended one two weeks ago where my paper proposal had been rejected, so instead of presenting, I took notes and thought things through and chatted and… it was lovely. One doesn’t have to be the centre of attention to not be alone and to learn.

The centre of attention. This is a rare thing for most writers outside the launch of their own books. This Friday I will be that. The Australian Studies day conference in Germany, this year run by Muenster University, has invited me to give a reading. A long reading. And to be interviewed by a scholar who studies and who teaches my work. I will learn a lot, that day.

I already feel as if I count, that I have not wasted my time in doing what I love. I’m more than nervous, because I’m more used to being forgotten than this, but I’m reading from 2 of my favourite novels and I intend to make these books come alive for my scholarly audience. This is a rare type of learning for all but the most famous of writers, and I shall treasure every moment.

The bottom line, the deep truth, the heart of the matter is that all these types of learning matter for writers. They help us know how we are seen by others. Even when the paths look as if they lead to that pit of despair, they’re still important to us. Giddy heights, pits of despair, even sloughs of despond: they all help us understand who we are, why we’re writing and who our audiences are.

PS Sorry for the bits of Bunyan. I read him when I was eleven and he stuck. The local library at the beachside town we visited every August had a limited library and Bunyan as the only writer in the children’s sector whose work would last me more than a half hour. In some ways this is good and in other ways this is amusing. Mostly, though, it means I lean into certain language when I talk about certain topics.

Despite the language, there is no Christian intent. In my world view, none of us move towards heaven by encountering this or that challenge. The challenges are part of our everyday. They’re the best and worst of the learning we need to get by. The best of times and the worst of times are like the best of learning and the worst of learning and … by another writer I read when I was eleven.