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.

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.

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.

Foxes

I’ve started writing this week’s post too many times, and each time it’s had a different topic. This is partly because life is a bit complex right now. It’s also because I am ranging intellectually from my normal research (the craft of writers in fairy tale retellings) to all kinds of other subjects because this is the Month of the Science Fiction Convention. Normally I also have an historical fiction convention but this year I had to make difficult choices. I haven’t missed the history, because I enjoy talking about it so much that people keep asking me.

What I’m thinking about right now (in this current hour, to be precise) are Medieval versions of the various stories about Renard/Renaut the Fox. I’ve decided to give one of my characters a name in his honour. The character will be a werewolf, and his name will be Reinhard Fuchs. This is how I continue gently with my fiction even when I have no time or energy to write.

Most of the things I’m checking up right now won’t enter into the Fox panel at the World Fantasy conference this week, at all. It’s a panel of writers, not a series of papers by Medievalists, after all, but me, I need to know the relationship between the different Medieval texts and how they fit with Jewish fox fables and Aesop and… I’m tracing a cultural trail for the fox stories in Europe. I have until my medical appointment. My medical appointment is late, which is why I have this luxury time to do fun things.

I’m sorry/not sorry that this post is so short. Tracing manuscript transmission and cultural connections is one of my favourite things and it’s giving me a happy hour in the middle of the afternoon. When I’ve reported into the doctor and he’s sorted me out, then I have to return to real research. I would dream of Renard, but… he’s not a great character to dream of. In fact, he’s a very good character to avoid.

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!

Flowers and garbage and invisible illness

Very few people wonder how those of us whose bodies are less capable of doing this or that get anything done. I am a very good illustration. I had glandular fever (mononucleosis to my US friends, I believe) in my mid-twenties and developed many of the vile long-term symptoms that people currently associate with Long COVID. In other words, I’ve had similar symptoms to Long COVID for nearly 40 years. This is not the only problem I’ve faced in my life, nor, indeed is it the biggest. It’s certainly the one that has invited the least inquiry. And the least understanding. Today I want to talk about how I’ve achieved anything at all in a life where I cannot guarantee even an hour without fatigue and pain. The physical side of it is one story and I don’t want to talk about that today. Today is, you see, an exhausted day, when I should be in bed wondering when I will improve a bit. It’s not a day I have to be in bed, however – those days when any exertion at all just makes things worse have become rarer as time passes.

I lost my time sense last night. That is, to me, a signal I need to live my alternate life. This post is brought to you from this alternate life. It’s a half day later than usual because I had to wait until I was able to do it.

This is how I handle days like this. If others have needs I fit in with them, but the next day is worse if I fit in. I suspect Friday will be a bed day because Monday night and Tuesday nights are brain fog days (with occasional windows of opportunity, one of which is right now), Wednesday is full of meetings and Thursday is full of unexpected medical stuff. I didn’t expect Wednesday and Thursday to be the way they are, which is how I can predict Friday. One thing I’m doing to prepare is (with the help of a friend) a big shop. One of the things I will be getting is reheatable food for Thursday to Monday. On Saturday I knew that yesterday and today would be a bit of a struggle, so on Sunday I prepared food for both days. This planning is constant. And I don’t always have the energy to do it.

There’s a lot of body-awareness and a lot of planning to get through the everyday and when one of these fall through things are like a deck of cards and I have to stop and start all over again. Currently I have enough income so that if the cards all fall down, all I need to do is drag myself to the computer and order enough home delivered food to get me through. Or open a tin from my cupboard. I lived on dolmades for 3 days recently, then I advanced to chicken and chips, because that was the easiest option and I wasn’t up to more. Then I was through that phase and was able to cook again.

Knowing I’m exceptionally busy on other peoples’ schedules this week means I can plan in advance. When anyone tries to spring something on me, they can set me up for a whole week of not being able to deal and I will hide it, generally, but there are people I really do not like because they never check if I’m able before springing things on me. If I had energy on the worst days, I could explain to someone who says “I have to see you” that it has to wait because I’m unwell. In fact, I do explain “I can’t do it now because…” but I can’t get into detailed explanations. Exertion can hurt and sometimes the little things like explaining (especially if there’s emotion attached) can hurt more than the large. This is why, oddly, the chronic fatigue is more of a problem in my life than more serious problems are.

The other thing that happens when my time sense gets derailed is that I drift off into byways. The path this post has taken is one of these byways. I meant to launch straight into “This is how I get novels and non-fiction written and research done and achieve as much as some people who have never had any sort of debilitating illness.” I think the tide of emotion carries my life forward at these moments. This post is an excellent example, in fact, of how this happens.

I use emotion to get work done at times like this. I sat down at my computer to write this post, having no idea what I’d write about at that point. I saw my research document open on the desk and just took a look before opening a new file. I edited three paragraphs. It wasn’t a lot, but over a week (even a really bad week) this adds up. Then I stopped and thought, “Why did I do this? Why didn’t I go straight to the blogpost?” My answer was, “It’s one of those weeks” and then “But I should tell people”. Because the sense that something is important gives me enough fuel to write. I will sit down quietly for a half hour as soon as this is posted, and then I’ll go shopping with a friend and make sure I have food for the coming life-sapped time.

I’m the sort of person who would rather work methodically, so when I’m less beleaguered, all my work is done entirely sensibly. On days like today, I allow the wind to carry me along, and take advantage of the moments I have. Little things, done when I can. That’s how I deal with the fatigue and the near-constant pain. I factor in the physical work I need to do to keep going and, month by month, I deal. I write whole novels this way, and do my research and when I can’t do anything except sit or lie down, I think things through. Slowly. My brain stutters at times like this. It’s bad for quick thoughts and insights – it’s wonderful for deep and slow unpinning of complex problems.

A few years ago, when I realised my strange lifestyle, I found a way of describing it. That description was more useful to friends who asked “Are you OK?” than to people like the one who emailed me a the start of Yom Kippur last year, and who wanted to meet urgently. It was a week far worse than this and I wouldn’t be up to a face to face meeting for weeks. I lost my Yom Kippur over that email and lost some days after it. The person who emailed would not have understood this from my metaphor. I needed more capacity to explain than I had… some situations are simply impossible, still.

My metaphor is not a new one. I say that life throws me garbage and, bit by bit, without pushing myself into more illness, I turn that garbage into fertiliser and it grows me the nicest garden. All my published novels are flowers, and Story Matrices, the book that has just been short-listed for the William Atheling Jr Award, is a rather nice rosebush. That book was written in a shockingly bad year, but the editor, Francesca Barbini, knew this and worked with me according to my actual capacity. She didn’t try to make me into something I’m not. She helped me create the best thing I was able to create in a year from hell.

Every paragraph I edit and every thought I have transforms this strange life into a strangely interesting life. Chronic illness isn’t the end of things… it does however, change things. And most people won’t ask or won’t know or won’t care. That’s part of the garbage being thrown. That garbage can be isolating and it can be depressing, but it’s excellent fertiliser.

Now all I need to do is find a publisher for the novel I wrote when I wrote Story Matrices. It’s the fictional approach to this isolation and strangeness and is a very different COVID lockdown novel to most. My way of dealing with the difficult is rather like a portal fantasy, you see, where you open doors briefly and visit worlds you can’t remain in because remaining is dangerous. My COVID novel is a quietly adventurous version of the portal novel that is my life. Glenda Larke (a friend with a marvellous new novel) was my beta reader and she told me that it was the best love story that she’d ever read. It needs a home, but writing it was the accomplishment. Just as the publication of Story Matrices was an accomplishment. Just as editing three paragraphs of my research and writing this blog post are accomplishments.

Chronic ill health isn’t the end of things. It does, however, require a series of reinventions of self, and the ability to say “If this is all I can do today then that’s fine.”

Why am I telling you all this? Because Long COVID is not going to go away. Some people will recover and some won’t. It’s quite likely you know someone who needs to know that this kind of chronic illness is not that end of world and that, over time, some extraordinary things are possible. They probably also need to know that the vast majority of folks around them will not see or even want to see what the new life entails.

Adjusting never stops. Seeing your own needs is essential. And once you know what your signals are (in my case, that loss of time and that drifting brain and the need to dump my once-wondrous rationality) and how to handle them (when to push, when to let things slide, how not to live on chips) life can become a lot better. Your garden will be all the better for the fertiliser. It won’t feel that way, however, because no matter what you do with the garbage being thrown at you, it’s still garbage. I’m still learning to celebrate the flowers and not be personally affronted at the garbage that is thrown in my direction.