A life-changing moment with Cordwainer Smith

2005 was a low point for me: I had lost all my confidence. I was pretty certain that I was a failure in all things intellectual and that I couldn’t write, but I was still very determined to keep going. I stayed with what I loved, even when I was pushed to the side, time after time. People with a single course as an undergraduate ere given work ahead of my PhD in a field, and it hurt.

Everything I wrote that year and into 2006 has underlying rumbles of my lac of confidence. It took me a few more years to discover that the problem had never been with my intellect. Sometimes it was because I am chronically ill (and one is not supposed to be intellectually competent and ill, both), sometimes because I’m not male (such an Australian bias) and, most often, because I’m Jewish. Nice people don’t say antisemitic things… they simply leave Jews out of things, or choose someone ahead of them.

How did my self-image begin to change? When I was at a Melbourne science fiction convention, I was asked to join a panel on Cordwainer Smith. Not by the convention planners, but by the panel itself. I said something and Bruce Gillespie asked me to write it up. This is what I wrote for Bruce:

Cordwainer Smith: reflections on some of his themes

  1. Canberra and Norstrilia

Canberra in the 1960s was a mere kernel of the Canberra of 2005. It was small and green, mostly buildings and public parkland, surrounded by the enormous brown of rural Australia. This was the Canberra that Corndwainer Smith knew. Not the small internationalist city of today, with its sprawl of suburbs and its café culture, but an overgrown country town that just happened to be the seat of government for a whole country. You can see a sense of this Canberra in Smith’s work, the idea that Norstrilian government is more a set of social compacts than a formal hierarchy, the idea that family and inheritance counts (the earliest settlers in the area still farmed sheep on what are today mere suburbs, Kambah for instance was farmed by the Beattie family) and the ideal that the country is vast and brown and far diminishes the civilisation it nurtures.

There are other reflections of Australian life of the time in Smith’s work. Immigration, for instance.

While policies were much more open than it had been, the inheritance of the White Australia policy was still very apparent in the people of this country. Much of Australia was still white, still Anglo, and still very conservative. In many places, of which Canberra was one, walking down the street one could very easily assume that the only non-Anglos were diplomats, that Australia didn’t let any strangers cross the border unless they had proven their credentials.

This was not the reality. Cordwainer Smith came to Australia at the crucial moment when White Australia was being broken down – indigenous Australians were finally given voting rights, migrants came from places other than the United Kingdom. The effects of this change were not yet apparent, however, outside Melbourne and Sydney and places such as the Queensland canefields. The reality of Canberra in the 1960s was that the hydroelectric scheme and more open immigration policies were bringing more and more people from other parts of Europe into the region – but walking down a Canberra street, the feeling was still very much of the dominant ancestry being British.

The Australia Smith saw was very much the cultural blueprint for Norstilia, with its responsibility towards remembering the British Empire and preserving certain cultural values.

At that time, Australia had a very restrictive economic policy. This included a barrage of tariffs and customs restrictions that have since been phased out. It was openly admitted that these restrictions were to develop the local economy and to protect important elements of it – the Melbourne clothes industry was of particular importance, for instance.

The effect of these import restrictions on everyday life was very marked; Australia was wealthy, but not quite first world. We took a long time to adopt innovations from outside, and luxury goods were particularly highly taxed. At the same time, because food and accommodation were much cheaper than in many other countries and Australian workers worked shorter days, even the poorest person was said to be richer than wealthy people elsewhere, in terms of lifestyle.

Add this to an important religious factor: the default religion people wrote on their census data as Church of England, and the Queen was both head of the Church and head of State. The political crises of the 1970s which disputed and lessened the impact of the royal family had not yet happened, and the most important Prime Minister of the 1960s, Sir Robert Menzies, was a keen royalist. A keen royalist and rather autocratic leader – the exact mix that Cordwainer Smith struggles to describe from a slightly bemused outsider viewpoint in his depiction of Norstrilia.

To the surprised outsider, we could easily have looked like a country that practiced old-fashioned Church of England values. Very High Church – abstemious and full of self-restraint.

Internally, Australia was not really self-restrained. The slow adoption of new technologies such as television were largely because of the distance of Australia from the rest of the world combined with the tariff system. Smith was interpreting this from a High Church view, however, and would be astonished by the current Australia, where abstemiousness and low technology levels are rather absent.

What Smith saw was an Australia ruled by an innocent nobility with power that was mostly inexpressed. This is the source of the apparent abstemiousness as he described it. It showed more in Canberra than elsewhere. There were only two major industries in Canberra at that time: the public service (all national) and the university. Canberra fully understood the outside world, but its lifestyle in no way reflected it. There were secure incomes and workplaces, safe jobs, but not much in the way of luxury. Canberra was a hard place to get to, for a capital city, with only a local airport and only one train station, and it had an extraordinarily suburban lifestyle. It also had (and still has) like Norstrilia an unexpectedly large awareness of the outside world and a sophisticated understanding of how the trade barriers operated.

It is very hard not to see the Canberra of the time in Norstrilia: a place with a sophisticated understanding of the external world, cut off from it and surrounded by bleak but rich countryside dominated by some of the best sheep territory n the world. It is ironic that, well after Paul Linebarger died, Goulburn built its Giant Merino – an enormous grey tribute to the traditional source of wealth in the Canberra region.

  1. The importance of Abba-dingo

Abba-dingo is particularly important in understanding Cordwainer Smith’s constructed universe. It appears in his short story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”. Abba-dingo was a carnival head that took coins or tokens and gave prophecies.

Writers looking for the origins of Smith’s odd names suggest that Abba- comes from the words ‘Abba’ for father from Hebrew or Aramaic, and the Australian native dog, ‘dingo’. While this appeals to me because it calls forth an Australian phrase ‘Old Man Dingo’, I have to admit, that I have large problems with this etymology. I suspect that Abba-dingo comes from a word much closer to home for Paul Linebarger and gives strong indications as to how his religious views shape decision in his universe: it comes from the Book of Daniel.

In the Book of Daniel the king of Babylon visits Jerusalem. He finds several royal Jewish children both beautiful and wise, and he proposes to teach these children the lore of the Chaldeans. He had the children renamed. Azariah was renamed Abednego. Naturally Daniel was the hero of this tale, which is all about true prophecy, but Abednego is linked to the true prophecy and survives his stint in a furnace.

Cordwainer Smith makes the link between Abba-dingo and Abednego quite obvious, as Abednego by using the notion of the fiery furnace and in ‘Alpha ralpha Boulevard” the making the imprint of the prophecy by fire. To make sure we don’t miss the point, in the King James Bible Abednego is always spelled Abed-nego and Smith divides Abba-dingo in the same way.

Abba-dingo then, is a closet reference to the Old Strong Religion. The head is an indication that the universe is planned, even when it looks like a game from a penny arcade. It refers back to the innocents and the holy being able to be given and to live the truth, even when they have no understanding of what is happening.

Cordwainer Smith has devised a predetermined universe based very much on a very High Church reading of the Bible. More than that, he writes a belief in the Select (chosen almost before their birth and with predestined accomplishments) eg D’Joan.

Much of his belief is not modern Church of England at all – it is, to me, very nineteenth century and fundamentalist. This is reflected in the nature of most of his short stories. They are Bunyanesque in feel. He emphasises this feel by the style he uses for the stories where the religion is an important component. He works with carefully built-up introductions and focuses on the inner meaning of lives rather than the individuality and personality of the people involved. This implies that these people are more important for the role they play than as game pieces to catch a reader’s eye.

The track of history and the meaning it all leads to is more important than the tale itself. Each story is, in fact, part of the monumental progress of humankind and animalkinds towards a future that Cordwainer Smith only hints at. Just like Moses, we don’t see Smith’s Holy Land except fro a distance – the voyage to it is more important.

What is important about the Bunyanesque progression is not the end of it. The aim is not to provide a guide to holy living or to a perfect future. Cordwainer Smith is not CS Lewis – his fiction does not preach.

What it provides is a mythical background to his novels. If you read all his short fiction then your read Norstrilia, you have the perfect structure for the assumptions that are made in the novel. He provides a legendary past and important indications of the future. This makes him look extraordinarily innovative, as his stories often use an allegorical or fairytale format rather than one more typical of the SF conventions of his time. Understanding those allegorical and fairytale formats and that legendary past and mythic background are important to understanding how to read the universe he created.

For instance, those indications give us important clues to certain characters (eg C’mell) and enable us to read far more into their behaviour and attribute more to their personalities than would otherwise be possible. Without the background, C’mell looks simply obedient and maybe a bit boring, regardless of her physical beauty, and her reward is the reward of dull virtue. When the reader understands that the Norstrilia section is only a small segment of her life, her reactions take on a much greater complexity.

The skill he brings to his more conventional writing highlights that these departures from convention are quite intentional. Cordwainer Smith was not writing a single novel: he was writing an allegorical universe with a complex history, and he was peopling it with real people (of various species) whose personalities and who capacity to determine their own lives were heavily affected by the allegorical nature of his universe.

Abba-dingo points to this. Cordwainer Smith uses the Abadnego joke to both indicate the religious allegory and to mock at it. Abba-dingo is, after all, only a fairground toy – how do we know that it is God speaking through a fairground mechanical or whether the author is using it as a cheap plot device.

This is the brilliance of Cordwainer Smith. He refers to his Old Strong Religion. He uses his Old Strong Religion. He shapes the whole story of D’Joan and the quest of Chaser O’Neill around a particularly archaic version of Protestant belief. All the traditional allegory and the Biblical and religious knowledge that was commonplace in his youth appears in his writing, from the land of Mizraim (Misr) to the need to forego the quest in order to achieve the true goal.

Yet all the while he uses these patterns, he mocks them. He makes it clear that his is an invented universe. He has his heroes play with space and time like gods, while indicating that they can’t possibly be gods. He creates his Vomact family in such a way that the ambivalence between good and evil is perennially pointed out: we don’t know until we are read a given story whether the Vomact will be hero or villain.

In showing the hand of the creator so very, very clearly, Cordwainer Smith casts doubt on his own allegories. He leaves it to the reader to think it through.

What’s at Stake?

I’m working on a sequel to For the Good of the Realm. My writing process includes reading back over what I’ve written not just to avoid actual writing (though of course that happens) but to understand what I’m doing.

I am a pantser through and through, so I not only figure out where something is going while I’m writing, I also sometimes understand what it is I’m actually doing when I read back over the work and realize what I did.

I’m sure this description of my process will drive other writers nuts, especially those whose mind works in linear paths. I don’t recommend it, but I seem to be stuck with it. I rarely know what I’m doing until I actually do it and sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing until long after I’ve done it.

Anyway, in my latest re-read, I came upon this bit of dialogue:

“But real adventures only happen when everything is at stake,” Asamir replied. “That is what makes them adventures.”

I love those sentences. (That’s another nice feature of my process: every once in awhile I discover I’ve written something that I find spectacular. Sometimes I even say, “Wow. I wrote that?”)

When I wrote those words, they were just a bit of dialogue thrown in after Anna, the main character, has explained to her friends Asamir and Cecile just how challenging their mission was going to be. But looking back at it, I think it addresses something that’s very crucial to writing a good adventure story:

Something important must be at stake.

Continue reading “What’s at Stake?”

The Met Gala and J.G. Ballard?

I do not usually pay attention to the Met Gala, which is happening next Monday. In fact, I think the first time I was even aware of its existence was several years back, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went wearing a white dress that had the words “Tax the Rich” on it in bold red letters.

But I happened to see a NY Times piece about this year’s event that explained that the theme is “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” and the dress code is based on J. G. Ballard’s story “The Garden of Time.”

As The Times describes it, the story is:

about an aristocratic couple living in a walled estate with a magical garden while an encroaching mob threatens to end their peaceful existence. To keep the crowd at bay, the husband tries to turn back time by breaking off flower after flower, until there are no more blooms left. The mob arrives and ransacks the estate, and the two aristocrats turn to stone.

The purpose of the Gala is to raise money for the fashion wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which apparently has to pay for itself. This does not seem to be a problem: last year’s Gala raised $22 million.

It is a party where the rich and famous pay lots of money to hob and nob and many people wear extravagant costumes. Apparently the “sleeping beauties” of the theme are items from the museum’s collection that are too fragile to be displayed even on mannequins.

But it was the reference to and description of the Ballard story that really caught my eye, caught it so much that I went looking for it and fortunately my library had The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. “The Garden of Time” was first published in 1962 and was, I gather, Mr. Ballard’s first appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I have now read it twice and I still find in unbelievable that this story is inspiring the dress code for a gathering of the rich and glamorous celebrities.

I am also amazed that The Times managed to report on this without any comment beyond “Just what comes to mind when you think “fashion,” right?”

I mean, they’re using a story in which rich and elegant people are trying to stave off the masses as dress inspiration for a gala that costs $75,000 a person in a time of extreme wealth inequality. You’d expect the reporter to have noticed that. Continue reading “The Met Gala and J.G. Ballard?”

The Magic Pudding

In my past and present, I write mostly serious short pieces on speculative fiction for Aurealis, one of my favourite magazines. In 2016 I wrote one slightly-less-serious-than-usual article. This year I have an article that mentions Norman Lindsay in another edition of Aurealis, but it is about one of his most hated rivals.

Early Australian Fantasy: The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

The writing world is full of solid literary criticism. Sometimes, it’s important to see literature from a different perspective.

We bring ourselves to our reading. We bring our dreams about stories and we bring the other stories we’ve read and we bring our expectations. Readers aren’t neutral, so I thought I’d explore how this non-neutral reader sees a particular work. The work in question is Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding. It’s so very Australian, with its larrikin humour and its reliance on British culture and its very Australian animals. It’s one of the great works of Australian fantasy. It’s been written about by so many scholars and studied in all its nuances. Just not the way I will look at it here.

Today I’ll examine The Magic Pudding from three angles. The first is nostalgic. I used to actively look for pudding recipes when I was a child, almost entirely due to this book. Recipes sum up nostalgia in this case more effectively than an analysis of my feelings. The second angle is that the structure of the book is very much derivative of Gilbert and Sullivan. The third is how I read it as a fantasy novel.

Let us look at Gilbert and Sullivan first.

The Magic Pudding would work well with music. The characters sing so very much and we’re given many of their verses. We’re not given the whole of any of the very long songs, which is probably just as well given that the long songs would add another three hundred pages to the story, but the whole novel is riddled with rhyme and song.

The songs fit into the tale in the same way they do in light opera in general. They reflect the characters and they denote a pause in the action and they change the direction of the story and they… do virtually anything. Not all of what they do makes sense logically or in narrative terms, which is why I see The Magic Pudding as a comic operetta, in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. The world of Bunyip Bluegum is a nonsensical world, where right and wrong and logic do not have standard values, and it’s rather like the world of The Mikado in how one thing leads to another by verbal trick.

The logic uses Australian culture, of course, to underpin its deviance from rational narrative. Two of the heroes are murderers and thieves, for they killed the cook who invented Albert the Puddin’ (we know this because Albert says so) and yet they feel noble and hard-done by when the puddin’ thieves try to steal from them. And the capacity to sing a song and eat a good meal count for more than prior social standing. The world is not an Alternate Earth—it’s the world of a stage. The world of an Australian stage.

So why do I also read this book as a fantasy narrative? Lindsay borrows from the late nineteenth century fantasy writers as much as he borrows from light operetta. It’s the combination of the two that give the book its uniqueness.

The Magic Pudding has some of the critical elements of a fantasy narrative, despite seldom being listed as such. My inner fantasy fan has always read it as a fantasy novel (with rhyme, illustrated), since I was old enough to read. It was on the family bookshelves from then until now, for I have just inherited the family copy. I’m working from the 1958 re-issue of the 1908 original, for those who really need to know these things. (I should have said this right up front, but one thing that re-reading The Magic Pudding does, every time, is lead to a disordered mind.)

When I started this essay, I was going to say that The Magic Pudding is a quest fantasy, but now I’m not sure if it’s that or sword and sorcery, with Albert the Puddin’ taking the role of the sapient and rather unlikeable artefact. Not only is my mind disordered, but it’s also indecisive. Let’s take a look at some of the fantasy elements in the book instead of coming to a firm decision about the book’s inner identity.

There are five critical elements: the hero’s journey, the artefact of power, the stereotyping of minor players, fabulous backstory, a happy ending.

The Hero’s Journey

Bunyip Bluegum starts off as an oppressed near-adult. The source of his oppression is his uncle’s whiskers:

Whiskers alone are bad enough

Attached to faces course and rough,

But how much greater their offence is

When stuck on Uncles’ countenances.

His uncle, being of unkind disposition, refuses to denude himself of them, despite the lack of room for the whiskers in the family home. At first, Bunyip Bluegum eats his soup outside (for drinking whiskers in his soup is intolerable) but finally he is forced to leave home. He takes up a walking stick (for he lacks any possessions and so can’t be a swaggie or other traveller) and becomes a gentleman of leisure. This is not only his first step into adventure, but it demonstrates that he will grow in status as he travels. Like so many young men of good family, the Outback and a walking stick lead to a new and better existence. And so he does. Each slice of the story shows that Bluegum is the centre of the adventures and is the one who, with increasing wit and decreasing morality, helps his friends rescue the pudding and escape from danger.

Precious artefact

Albert the Puddin’ is magic and coveted. His first manifestation was ’in a phantom pot/A big plum-duff an’ a rumpsteak hot‘ on an iceberg. Men and penguins will kill to obtain him and will commit trickery and deceit. While his special property is the unlimited capacity to feed people pudding and while that pudding can be any type (though is most likely to be rump steak, steak and kidney or plum duff) in terms of the fantasy quest it’s his personality that counts.

A sapient quest object has to be either wise or very difficult and Albert is as difficult as a badly brought up eight year old with a talent for rude barbs. When I was eight, I have to admit, I was very relieved to read the episode where he was turned upside down and sat upon, for there is some magic that is better silenced. Still, there is no denying that Albert is a precious object without equal. He belongs in a quest novel. Characters spend their lives defending him, chasing him, questing for him, and eating him.

Stereotyped Minor Characters

The Magic Pudding is a picaresque adventure and one of the most important elements in picaresque adventures is the secondary cast. It has to include scurrilous rogues (in this case, the puddin’ thieves), women who form an attractive background (and even, in the case of The Magic Pudding are rescued from drowning and given a fictional love for a penguin as part of said penguin’s song—I was going to quote from it here, but the best bit is a spoiler and, if we’re talking fantasy, we have to avoid spoilers) but have no personality or role of their own. Minor characters also include, of course, any number of random people and bandicoots for when a character needs direction or assistance. The only thing I’m unsure about in this is whether there are enough bandicoots in classic picaresque fantasy, but that’s another subject and needs to be left for another day.

Backstory

Heroes don’t have much backstory (just uncles with whiskers). Most of them emerge from voids with little experience or personality. They grow into both experience and personality through their adventures and with the help of their sidekicks. These personality-filled support characters have backstory in spades. This backstory serves to set up events, give stories to pass the time, and makes characters more personable when they lack the intrinsic interest of the Hero.

The fact that Sam Sawnoff and Bill Barnacle are prone to singing their background stories merely emphasises the colour they bring to the story. We hear about their adventures on the ice (the prettified version) and romance (the prettified version) and pretty much everything about them that Lindsay can fit into verse.

It’s important to note here that Lindsay came of the same literary generation as AB Patterson and Henry Lawson and knew them both, though he didn’t really know Patterson that well and couldn’t get past Lawson’s deafness. The rhymes are part of the vernacular of the day. This is the backstory of The Magic Pudding, however, and not of her characters, so I won’t explore it further here.

Happy ending

Where a young boy is forced to leave home due to the dreadful torment of his uncle’s whiskers, the best possible happy ending is for him to make his own home. In this case it is a home with a special pudding paddock on a branch just high enough to enable a certain Puddin’ to pull faces at pickle onions.

Like all great fantasy novels, The Magic Pudding anticipated the needs of fans in some very interesting ways. Fans can filk the songs, or cosplay the characters, for instance. Given I belong to foodie fandom, I, of course, want to find out what Albert the Puddin’ tastes like.

Assuming that making a sentient pudding is not wise, since it inevitably leads to the death of the creator, all the different flavours of Albert reflect standard recipes of the time. My source is the first cookbook printed in Australia (to the best of our knowledge) and there are three reasons for taking the recipe from it. First, I’m not breaching any copyright. Second, it’s the exact right age to reflect Norman Lindsay’s mother’s generation and the pudding she would have cooked (although there is a greater likelihood of her owning a copy of Mrs Beeton than this volume), which means it’s very likely to be the flavours Lindsay knew, and third, the book is suspect (at least some of it was plagiarised from earlier cookbooks) which exactly fits the scurrilous humour of The Magic Pudding. Just because a piece of writing is in our past, doesn’t make it respectable. Just because The Magic Pudding is witty and wonderful, doesn’t make it respectable, either. So, from Edward Abbott’s infamous cookbook English and Australian cookery book: cookery for the many, as well as for the upper ten thousand (the Pudding section, of course) here is a taste of Albert.

Beef-steak Pudding.—Take two pounds of rump-steak, and cut into seasonable pieces; and cut into shreds two or three onions. Paste the pudding-basin with good crust, not too rich nor too poor. Put the meat into the basin, with some pepper and salt, and a dozen oysters, with a little thickening, composed of mushroom ketchup, flour and water, and mustard. Simmer for an hour and a half, and serve in the basin; or turn it out, if the gravy in the pudding can he retained.

Connoisseurs prefer a beef-steak pudding to a beef-steak pie; and mutton, veal and ham, kidney, sausage, fowl, fish, and game puddings may be served in a similar way. 

Wizardry

In September 2016, a writer-friend called Helen asked me to write a post about one of my novels for her blog. This novel has now been translated into Greek, has a lovely audiobook, and has cool merch (me, I like the teddybear the most). Why did I choose this blogpost? Mainly because Helen Stubbs and I talk about Greek food a lot. She has the right ancestry and I grew up in the right part of Melbourne. And, of course, there’s that Greek translation.

Helen suggested I talk about my new book The Wizardry of Jewish Women. I instantly wanted to write you a post about why she suggested it, the contexts, the places, the people. That’s because my new novel is about all these things. I’m living in a world that’s got History and Culture and Much, Much Cooking until I move back into writing mode. When I’m back into writing mode, I’ll be thinking about genders (many genders) so I think you’ve got the simple end of things here.

While The Wizardry of Jewish Women isn’t autobiographical (which is a shame – I really would like those children to be mine!) it borrows a lot from people I’ve known and things I’ve done. Those cold corridors in Parliament House and the meetings and the policy papers that keep one character up at midnight: they’re stolen from my life. How they operate in Judith’s life has nothing to do with my life, however. I transformed my experiences when I gave them to Judith.

I’ve transformed things the whole way through. Even my mother (who makes a guest appearance) has been transformed.

This is nothing new, and it’s nothing unusual. Fiction is not reality. Fiction is invention based on whatever threads we spin and whatever weave we choose to make with those threads. The reason it’s particularly important in this case is that early readers thought the novel was autobiographical. Some thought the historian was me, while others thought the enthusiastic feminist was me. I put both characters in, so that readers could see that just because a historian appears in fiction, doesn’t mean that I’m that historian and just because I use places I know (like Parliament House) doesn’t make it autobiographical.

Some writers thinly disguise their lives and use novels to explain the truths of their existence. Me, I’m more likely to take something I’ve done and make it into something entirely new. My life is the ground under a trampoline, and my novel is the trampoline and my characters only touch the ground by mistake.

A lot of fantasy writers do this, especially those that write at the realist end of fantasy. We take our reality and we transform it. That transformation always happens. It has to happen. Without that transformation, the novel wouldn’t be a fantasy novel. Without that transformation it would be an entirely different story, but also an entirely different kind of story.

To create the transformation I start with things I know (the corridors of Parliament House) and I place them in the world of the novel. I spend a lot of time creating the world of the novel, because it’s the trampoline and without it my characters end up on the ground or suspended in midair. For the world of this novel, for example, I invented a house in Newtown and one in Canberra and one in Ballarat and one in Melbourne. I know the floorplans and the squeaks of the floorboard and the colour of the carpet. None of these houses are real. This is unlike the house in Ms Cellophane, which is quite real. Ms Cellophane is a different novel, and I created the world of the novel differently.

When he launched Wizardry, the wonderful Michael Pryor commented on my complex magic system. It’s complex because it’s real. I didn’t follow writerly instructions on how to invent a magic system, I studied historical magic (wearing my ‘historian’ hat) until I had a good sense of how various forms of Jewish magic would meet at a point in history and create the one my characters discover. In the process, I also learned how Jewish magic was similar and quite, quite different from Christian magic and how the cultural mindset that created it also created what we see as modern scientific thought. Creating the world for this novel changed the way I see our world. It made me realise that my family has no magic tradition due to what it has suffered historically.

The big lesson I learned in creating the world for my novel was that people change and adapt in order to survive. I learned that one of the things I was doing in this novel was re-creating a world that could have been. The magic in the novel was one of the traditions lost to most of Western Judaism due to persecution. We lost a lot more than magic, but the magic was an emotionally safe way for me to talk about the other things.

Survival involves loss and damage and hurt. Even survival of smaller ills is damaging. Feminism and Judaism have a lot in common. They care about seeing the damage and healing the hurts of humanity. They care not just about living, but about living a good life.

This is why my novel is about feminism and about Judaism. I wanted to show what it was like to live hurt and to survive, to make wrong decisions and nevertheless to keep on going, to see life as a continuing challenge and to try to heal. If our reality is the ground under the trampoline, then this is the netting that links the frame to the play area.

Despite the trampoline metaphor, this isn’t a metaphorical novel. Despite the fact that it’s not about me, it’s not so very imaginary. Wizardry is set in a world exceptionally like ours, but with Jewish magic.

I didn’t want to talk about the time of adventure and the time of damage – I wanted to explore how women heal themselves and heal others. It’s a small world. My characters don’t explore the universe, they play on their trampoline. It’s enough for them.

Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes they turn to the Dark Side. Sometimes they turn to pink tutus. Sometimes they turn to food.

It’s funny that people are asking me about the feminism, for there is as much chocolate as there is feminism. This is because my characters don’t bounce naked. I have to dress them and give them the various parts of their lives, from a giant teapot to a liquor cabinet. I didn’t just research the magic system and I didn’t just build on feminism and Judaism.

Whatever my characters see and feel when they jump on their trampoline is theirs and theirs alone.

Tradition and cholent

I’ve been looking at maps this week in my spare time and it was Purim over the weekend. Purim is an historical festival, not so much a religious one, so I always try to make sense of a bit more Jewish history as my learning for the celebration. I was perplexed as a child when non-Jewish families didn’t do learning as part of their celebration. This is a tradition. My tradition is not that of Fiddler on the Roof! and the song “Tradition”.  It is learning and food, much food. There are many Jewish cultures. Learning is one of my favourite bits. It ranks as high as chicken soup.

When I was a teen, I had this conversation.  It began with me asking, “What did you learn for Christmas?”

“I got these presents, let me show you. You show me your presents, too.” Chanukah collided with Christmas that year, as it did from time to time, but my friend was totally baffled when I showed her my present for fifth night, which was a small box of Smarties (Australian M&Ms). Me, I had present-envy. I didn’t get presents such as hers even for my birthday.

I am a slow learner. The next Easter I asked a Greek Orthodox friend.

“What did you learn for your Easter?”

“We didn’t learn. We dyed eggs red and cracked them.” She had some dye left over and we totally messed up my mother’s kitchen and destroyed many candles making decorated eggs. We didn’t crack them, because Easter was over. We put them in a bowl and left them on the counter until my father complained about the smell.

Later I found that not all Jews learn every festival. But it’s my tradition and I love it.

This year’s choice for Purim was propelled by the sad fact that historical research and research for novels all take planning. I was considering actual Jewish populations along the Rhine at different times for something I’m looking into later in the year. I had a crashing thought that had me investigating maps last week. I used Purim to give me the time to make everything make sense. Tomorrow I’m back to my regular resaerch, which is currently wholly in literary studies

For all this (except the literary studies), I blame cholent.

Cholent, the dish, is a Jewish slow-cooked casserole from (mostly) Eastern Europe. Its name, however, most likely comes from French. We talk a lot about European Jews migrating east, but the most popular explanations and timing don’t fit Western European history. Yiddish is a lot more recent than the first migrations, and… it’s complicated. I made it understandable using maps. The maps themselves don’t explain things – they triggered the explanations, which is why there are no maps in this post and only one link to one. I answered a lot more questions that night and this weekend than I could give in a post – the question of Jewish movement eastward, for instance, must wait.

I began with a map of the Roman Empire at its pre-Christian peak. There were millions of Jews distributed throughout the Roman Empire as citizens, as non-citizens, and as slaves. I’ve seen estimates of numbers ranging from one million to ten million, and I usually use four million as a compromise number to work with.

Four million is over a quarter the size of the modern world Jewish population so, a while back I calculated how many Jews we would have around today if history had been kinder. It was in the vicinity of 320 million. Eighty million if you take the minimum number of Jews in the Roman Empire and over a billion using the largest estimate. We would not be such a tiny minority, in other words, if we had progressed simply because the world population has expanded and we had not been forcibly converted, mass murdered, exiled, enslaved, enthusiastically converted to other religions and so forth.

Populations follow trade routes and you can see evidence Jewish life along all the Roman trade routes. Well, all those where anyone has looked. Antisemitism is so deeply ingrained in our societies that many experts demand far more evidence for a Jewish burial than, say, a Christian one. There is a lot that probably needs to be re-evaluated in the archaeological record if we want to know actual Jewish populations in most areas.

Assessing the written record is easier, but not in a good way. The vast majority of Jewish records have been destroyed, and we’re reliant on surprising survivals such as the Cairo genizah. This means our knowledge through writing is patchy from anyone Jewish, because of the destruction, and biased from anyone else. Occasionally the bias is positive. Occasionally.

This means we really don’t know a lot about how many Jews lived in the Roman world, where they lived and how they lived. We know a lot more than we did, but we still have big gaps. We do know, however, the geographical limits of Jewish life and the trade routes related to much of the Jewish everyday.

The next map I thought of, then, was of Charlemagne’s empire at the time of its division into three, 843. I was thinking of places that were more antisemitic and less antisemitic and they pretty much follow this divide. It was easier to be Jewish in the central band of the empire (the one with Charles’ capital – which makes sense, because his personal confessor converted to Judaism and this does not seem to have ended the world) and a few key places nearby. These are all, in modern day Europe in eastern France (usually the parts that also speak German), the Saar, Italy, Provence and Burgundy. This became the Jewish heartland of non-Hispanic Europe in the Middle Ages.

It is the original Ashkenaz. It’s the Ashkenaz that made European Jewish marriages one husband to one wife, but refused to relinquish divorce despite enormous pressure from local Christians. Rashi, one of the great Medieval scholars, used the word ‘akitement’ for divorce: marriage in Judaism was and is a contract that can be acquitted, it’s not a covenant. European Jewish was both Jewish and European and that wide strip of territory that formed that heartland explains a great deal about us.

Ashkenazi culture spread east and changed and that’s a story for another time. It began to spread early enough so that ‘cholent’ could have a French name: it came from the Carolingian Empire after French developed as a language. Not before the eleventh century. Which is interesting because… I have another mental map for that.

In the late 8th century, a Jewish trade network operated from that region (and possibly Champagne). We don’t know a lot about it, but when I looked at its most known route, Jewish traders used those ancient fairs, with a special focus on Medieval fairs. I have a book with maps of every town in that region that had a fair in the Middle Ages and the dates we know those fairs operated and I cannot find it! So this is work for my future, after my thesis is done.

The Rhadanites were gone about the time that the Khazar Empire declined and fell, and one of their trade routes led to the heart of the Empire, so that’s something else to explore one day. About the time both faded from view, the Crusades began in Europe and persecution of Jews became far more severe. But… right until the mid-20th century, those towns were part of larger trade routes and had Jewish communities.

Every trade fair needed a route to the fair, and each stop was a town usually between 15-20 miles from the previous and also served as fairs for local farmers. In the Middle Ages, prior to all the murders and expulsions, so many of these towns had Jewish traders and craftspeople. And so many of those families would have cooked cholent or an equivalent.

This is a small fraction of what I spent one night and one Purim sorting out. I have to leave it now until September. I’ll write it up more accurately and less improperly when I’m actually working on it. In other words, these are my early thoughts.

Why did I share them with you, then? Part of the family tradition of learning includes talking about things. If anyone wants to talk about these subjects, this is a good place and a perfect time. Why perfect? Because all my thoughts are halfway right now. I could be very, very wrong in how I see things.

There is a tradition to this learning. The tradition is that you have to prove anything you want to challenge. Evidence! When I was a child and we argued without evidence it occasionally led to very sophisticated behaviour, such as the sticking out of tongues, which got us into trouble. Evidence is safer than the sticking out of tongues.

What’s the aim of challenging and providing evidence? That the learning may continue… (kinda like the spice must flow).

 

A Poet Can Survive Anything but a Mis-Print

The title above is credited to Oscar Wilde, who was more adept than many at surviving all sorts of things. Sometimes the mis-print is no fault of one’s own. Sometimes it is definitely user error.

When My Dear Jenny, my second book,  was published, I fell back on the time honored trope of the Regency-era romance: a woman who underestimates herself. She is heading toward spinsterhood (a socially–and economically–despised state), used to being helpful as a way of making up for a lack of beauty or fortune. If she’s attractive, she does not know it. What she is is competent (my most favorite virtue) and humorous. And lovable, but she’s certainly unaware of that. And of course, because I was writing romance, there’s this guy who sees her for what she is, and appreciates (nay, loves) her for it. So toward the end of the book, when he declares his feelings, she is conflicted. By the markers of their society–looks, fortune, birth–he’s too good for her.  Okay, as world-beating plot twists go, this is hardly one. As I said: a trope of a certain kind of romance. Also, I was young and not terribly confident of my own virtues too. So.

When the proofs came, there was a typo that stood the whole thing on its ear. The sentences I had written were: He was, she thought, a bit above her touch. But on the proofs the sentences read:  She was, she thought, a bit above his touch. That’s right: suddenly, she’s too good for him. I marked this in the proofs, and of course, with that stubbornness that is life and publishing, that is the only correction I made on the proofs that did not get made before the book went to print. I fixed it, years later, in the e-book edition. 

Then there are the typos we do to ourselves. Three years ago I applied for (and achieved) TSA Pre-check status. Most of the time it doesn’t make much difference, but sometimes (like when I’m checking in Orlando, FL, for the flight home from the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts–at the end of school break, when the security line can take an hour and a half) it makes all the difference in the world. For the past three years I have had Hell’s own time getting the little logo on my boarding passes. Today, having called the airline and TSA, I finally discovered that the final digit on my Known Traveler Number (KTN) was not a 5 but an S. Changed the number and Hey, Presto! Alaska Airlines’ system gave me the tiny logo and I’m good to go.

Except that I feel kind of stupid. I’m not sure where the error came from, but I’ve been proliferating it lavishly for years.

Ah, well. By the time this is published I’ll be on my way to ICFA; if you get a chance to go some year, do.  It’s an absolutely wonderful conference, especially when you don’t have to stand in line for an hour to get there.

 

Yesterday and Tomorrow

When I need a break from the very bad news that wants to control my life and eat my brain, I watch old TV. The series I’m watching right now is the original The Tomorrow People. There is a reason for this. Not a very sensible reason. I’m not watching it because it’s primary fodder for my research (though if something comes up, I keep that something in mind): I’m watching it because it is the TV series that matched my age and interests when I was a teen. I needed to discover some parts of my past. Re-visiting the past is particularly useful when the present isn’t as easy as it could be.

Australia was a lot less USA-like in the 1970s, and The Tomorrow People is a classic science fiction show targeted at teens, and I was a classic SF tragic when I was a teen, and… let me get back to the beginning.

The Tomorrow People was shown from 1973 until 1979.

If I were to ask you to to take a wild guess as to when I began high school I hope that you would say ‘1973’ without hesitation. I was eleven-going-on-twelve. I was a science nerd and a history nerd but we had no words to describe that. The science didn’t need a term to help it fit into my life, because my mother was a science teacher. The history I had to argue for and persuade people that museums were worth visiting.

“You have half an hour” I was told when we went caravanning. Five minutes if it was a monument, half an hour if it was a museum. I found ways of spinning out that half hour. When I found a display of diamonds that had been found in streams (it was the goldfields, of course diamonds were found in streams, though in my case I found a few minuscule rubies and garnets, some gold and a vast amount of cassiterite) the whole family came in to investigate them. We understood rocks. All of us. Rocks and food. And, for me, baby clothes and irons from a century ago, and anything written or printed from before I was born and…

I’ve wanted to understand the whole world around me since I was about two. I was told “It will get boring” and it never has. A friend gave me an Australian cookbook from 1968 just this week, as an early birthday present (when things are difficult friends give early birthday presents, I suspect) and I cannot put it away until it has been thoroughly explored and my relationship with each and every recipe has been re-established… I knew this book when it first came out, you see. I was seven. I loved it then and, now, at 62, I have my own copy and life is suddenly so happy I needed to rewatch The Tomorrow People.

I am quite possibly, a failure, but I’m a failure who developed an early love of science fiction. SF and food are two of my happy places.

When I was heading for my teens, I read SF magazines from the US and watched a few TV series from the US but mostly, in the 70s, it was Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven and The Tomorrow People. For me it was, anyhow. The Tomorrow People was the one with children like me, who didn’t fit in. I couldn’t do telepathy, but I liked the TV series so very much that an aunt gave me Franklin’s ESP (a board game for incipient telepaths) for my birthday. I could try to be a Tomorrow Person. I could write stories about it. That need to write stories stuck, but my need to teleport did not.

My favourite actor on the series was Elizabeth Adare. I discovered today that this was because her acting style channels my inner teacher. I wanted to meet her. The actress, not the character. I probably still do. She was the right public person when I was the right age to pay attention. The series of The Tomorrow People where she was absent felt a little bereft. Why is this so? (A totally misplaced quote from an Australian science TV show, also from my childhood.) It’s because The Tomorrow People finished just when I left school and went to university. It lasted just the right amount of time. There was an adult woman on the television who was permitted to be intent and interesting and intelligent and when the actress was interviewed she was even more interesting and intelligent. We all need role models: I was very lucky to have that one at that precise and difficult time.

And now, if you’ll kindly excuse me, I have books to see and TV to meet.

The Future of Science Fiction

I am not one of those people who think of science fiction as belonging to an in-crowd of geeky people, much less someone who wants to gate keep for the field. While I have frequently been annoyed by those in literary fields who refuse to treat SF with respect, my approach has always been to try to encourage such people to read in the genre and discover what it can do.

I do admit to being appalled by the way many of the rich and powerful people in tech seem to have read satirical and even dystopic science fiction and taken it as a manual for the future instead of a warning. And even though I worked at Grok Books (the predecessor to Bookpeople, a large and successful bookstore) in Austin lo these many years ago, I am somewhat mystified by the fact that a section called “Grok” has appeared on Twitter.

I gather that Elon Musk has been reading Heinlein, but I’m not going to click on “Grok” to find out where he’s going with it. I have seen a recent reference to Stranger in a Strange Land as “creepy” and I suspect I would share that feeling if I tried to read it today. (The hippie overtones were more appealing 50 years ago.)

My own preference is for written science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter). There have been some good SF movies and even better television – I got hooked on Doctor Who during the Tom Baker years and am fond of Star Trek – but my love for the genre comes from what really good writers can do with ideas and imagination.

That said, I do recall that when Star Wars first came out, I was thrilled by the way it changed movies. I do wish that shift had ended up being something more than really good special effects. Movies are not living up to their potential.

Stories and novels, on the other hand, often transcend theirs.

I was sent down this train of thought because I learned that during the recent WorldCon held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, Chinese companies signed deals worth over 1 billion dollars (8 billion yuan) related to 21 science fiction projects involving films, parks, and immersive experiences and other deals involving melodramas, games, and the metaverse.

The only mention of books I saw in the article describing the deals was this:

“Chinese science fiction is evolving from a solely text-based medium to a diverse range of formats encompassing comics, movies, games, VR, XR, toys, and film merchandise,” said Ji Shaoting, the founder and CEO of the sci-fi cultural company Future Affairs Administration.

Of course, this should be a boon for some Chinese SF writers, because all those projects are going to need writers for the games and movies and so forth, not to mention books and stories to mine for ideas.

But I must say, this is not the science fiction future some of us were looking for.

Continue reading “The Future of Science Fiction”

Australian Gothic

This week is just a small post, because I’m a bit pressed for time. When I am less pressed for time and when things are able to be announced, all will become clear. While you wait, you might want to think about the Middle Ages and about the Blue Mountains, not far from Sydney. Or you could ponder my published writing from last year, in the hopes that thinking about it will stave off new published work. Keeping peril at bay…

A friend and I talk about Australian Gothic as a style of story quite frequently (she’s an academic who specialises in Australian fiction, and it’s always loads of fun to chat with her) and she happened to mention a story of mine in relation to it. The story is “Ignore the Dead Bodies, Please” and it’s in the Narrelle Harris and Katya de Becerra anthology This Fresh Hell. Australian Gothic goes back to the nineteenth century, when local writers discovered they could create a whole new sub-genre by simply writing about the everyday. Australia is not the same as other continents, and for people whose ancestors are from Europe, it’s very easy to turn this not-sameness into something subtly creepy or even outright terrifying. On some days, a kangaroo looking straight at you is sufficient to create gentle nightmares.

Today’s question was whether my story is Australian Gothic? Or is it a satire of traditional sorrow? Actually, it’s both. And neither.

The forest setting I used is typical of an Australian Gothic setting. Trees are not uncommon in the sub-genre. The fact that the forest is a real one where murders actually happened is very much Australian Gothic, but the fact that it’s a forest specifically grown for tree harvesting is not. The fact that I brought the two together was me seeing what would happen if I included at least two variants on each and every theme. I did this the whole way through. It should be possible, if I’ve done my job right, to read the story from at least three directions. The first reading, however, should be for fun and for the frisson.

There are otherworldly beings in the story, of course, but I’ve kept them just a fraction away from the Australian Gothic… on purpose. I’ve given too much information for some and too little for others and been really rude about the worship of dark forces.

All this is quite intentional. Narrelle and Katya wanted stories that turned tropes around. I hate stories about certain types of bigotry, so of course I wrote one. I love Australian Gothic, so of course I wrote that, too. Mostly, however, I followed paths that were not very respectful and made a story that is its own. If you want a real horror story, look into the actual history of Belanglo Forest.