While not may people “get” my love of fantasy, a few blessed souls do. It has everything to do with my childhood, and with C.S. Lewis, mostly. I never believed in anything as surely as I believed in Narnia, when I was a little girl. It was a certainty in my life, a palpable force, a knowledge that magic was real, and that some day–even though I expected it at every turn–I would get myself to Narnia.

Sure, when you’re a kid, there’s a lot of things you don’t know. But I think too many people grow up too fast. They disregard fantasy stories and fairy tales because they don’t believe they’re applicable. But this is as far from the truth as can be: fairy tales are the truest tales we tell, in some sense, because they themselves are spun out of the truest stories of our kind. We, as paltry human beings, have never been able to fully explain the word around us, and fairy tails help us do that, and will brilliance, too.

The thing is, as a child, you feel more. You haven’t been bruised or ruined, disappointed or embarrassed, disregarded or degraded–at least, on the whole, not as much as later on in life. You are new; the world is full of possibilities. Every toadstool is a fairy cove, every cave a dragon’s den.

But we lose it; we leave it. Bit by bit, it falls away. Imagination gives way to reason, and fancy fails when faced with reality.

Yet, some of us can’t give it up. Every book we pick up brings us back again, every word we write in some way is connected to that golden moment of our childhood when it was all possible. I’ve been listening to what I write, lately, concentrating on what it is I’m saying–what my own self is saying about magic, and science, reason and fancy. And it’s rather fascinating. There’s a great deal more tension than I think I expected… I am wary, I am jaded. It’s never as easy as Abracadabra… yet I keep writing it.

I suppose as odd as it sounds, it’s because a part of me simply refused to believe that this is all there is, and recognizes the magic power of words. Magic doesn’t have to be hurling balls of fire or raising the dead. Sometimes, it can be much quieter. It can be hope; it can be love. It can be sharing stories across times, cultures, borders. It can be, in every way concievable, the most basic of human powers…

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Yesterday, my friend Karen wrote to me:

So, do we write what we are? If so, who are you?

I thought about this for a while. We were speaking, to put this in context, of magic and religion. At least in the course of the AGC, I indicated the following:

Primarily I take from Norse and Celtic lore, with a little smattering of Judeo-Christian ideas for good measure. It’s all very basic, tied to the way the world itself works. I guess, at heart, I’m an agnostic. I ask: “So, if all this religion is true–and if it were to manifest itself to you–but if it might mean the destruction of your world, what do you do? Whose side are you on?”

Devil’s advocate. That’s me.

I realize that’s a little on the spoilery side, isn’t it? I’ve indicated in the past that the Aldersgate itself has quite a bit to do with what magic is and isn’t in this world. But the crux of the tale rests, thus far, on the decisions people make, and what sides they end up on.

As much as possible, I’ve tried to fiddle with our concepts of good and evil, concepts that so often invade science fiction and fantasy in ultimate contrast. That’s why I think the whole Neo-Victorian/steampunk aesthetic is so important to the story itself, because it speaks so perfectly to the tensions in the telling.

Anyway. For those of you who write, here’s the question to you: Do we write what we are? If so, who are you?

… but Kelly McCullough did first, and did a fine job of it. So, that takes care of that.

Read his post Don’t let Writing get in the way of writing.

If you’ve followed along at all in The Aldersgate Cycle, you’ll have seen some immediately obvious instances where gender matters significantly, mostly noticeably in the shortage of women spoken about in the first few chapters. It’s this shortage of women that’s driven Queen Maelys to retrieve all the young women from the Continent and bring them to Hartleigh Castle in Queensland for safekeeping. I don’t think this was a particularly overt feminist statement on my behalf, rather a situational fact that helped drive the story along, and answered a question I had: What if there weren’t enough women? I still ask plenty of related questions, and I’m not certain I’ve answered them all yet, but I’m working on it. In fact, the entire structure and culture of my novel is, in many ways, directly connected to that main question.

I don’t think feminism is a good descriptor of how I view the world. It isn’t as simple as that. Through my travels, friendships, and experiences, I’ve come to see gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation in a rather different light than I once did. I decided, in light of the difficulties still existent in our world, to say something important on the subject, but in a decidedly fantasy setting.

You see, it isn’t just the lack of women that drives much of the novel. Because, laying in bed at night some year or so ago, asking myself many of the questions related to the shortage of women (why so few women born? what do people think?) I came upon a surprising answer. It’s not that children are any less frequent, but that something else is being born. Fraternal twins are a common occurrence in Earena, and boys often grow up with brothers their same age. However, it isn’t always the case with girls.

More often than not, twin births of the non-male variety end up with one girl and one ungendered baby. And by ungendered, really I mean non-sexed. These babies are literally lacking in any distinguishable sex characteristics.

Being inspired by high-minded Victorians and their like, the unsexed children–called Sibs, short for Siblings–are not considered citizens in any capacity, regardless of rank or relationship. Society has deemed that any human incapable of furthering the species is a non-entity. For three centuries this led to an entire class that bordered on slavery and, in some cases, worse. This is also tied to theories of the construction of the Other, of course, but that’s another post altogether I’d think.

What the Sibs are now, and where they reside is something of a mystery (at least to those of you who aren’t me, or who’ve read the first draft). But their story is at the heart of The Aldersgate Cycle, an undercurrent that propels much of the narrative, but often unseen.

You can imagine the questions I have to ask myself when writing the Sibs. But it’s something I take time to do, because I want to do it right. I don’t want it to be comfortable, because it isn’t–but I want to do it justice above all. (And this is not to mention, of course, the culture at large’s general acceptance of homosexuality–considering there’s such a surplus of men, you can see how that might be convenient.) The Sibs as a culture are probably my proudest achievement to date, in some ways being the ultimate steampunks (complete with tattoos and plenty of amazing inventions).

I also had to consider how to refer to non-gendered people in terms of language. I spent days researching, and finally turned to Middle English for inspiration. I ended up with the following:

he = she = hea

him = her = hean

his = hers = heas

In the third case, it’s pronounced “HEY-ah”. At first it was decidedly awkward to write. In spite of my attempted unbiased approach, I found that I would still think of individual Sibs as either more female or more male, and slip into the usual pronouns. But now, as I work through the second (and in some cases third) draft, it has become quite natural and comfortable. I’m quite happy with the results.

I do believe in the power of literature, especially that which requires we suspend our disbelief just a little. It’s one “what if” removed from our own world, true, but one that lends an important voice to my narrative. My opinion may not be agreed upon by everyone, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. I try not to come across as pedantic or judgemental in my telling, and rather, simply want to put the question to the reader and ask: “What would you do, in a world like this?”

from Chapter Ten: Below

“They’re Sibs,” Emry chimed in from next-door. “Or so they’ll have us believe.” He hardly sounded convinced, and Cora wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“And we have names, and proper pronouns, thank you very much,” replied the Sib. “My name is Ezz. And you can call me hea. Not he nor she but hea. Not his or hers, but heas. Not to him, or to her, but to hean. That’s the basics. Heas, hean, hea.” It sounded like “Hey-ah”.

Cora frowned, trying to process Ezz’s little grammar lesson. “So you’re neither…”

“Neither male nor female,” Ezz replied, folding heas arms over heas chest. “Which I’m sure is terribly difficult for you to even conceive.”

An early poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

An early poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

History is beautiful puzzlement.

For many people, the concept of fantasy literature in and of itself must be restrained to medieval settings, where swords and sorcery define the landscape. But much of what we perceive as fantasy has little to do with the so-called “real” Middle Ages, and everything to do with the Victorians, their ideals, and their cultural obsessions.

In fact, the images the majority of people conjure up when someone says “fantasy” or “knights” or “King Arthur” come directly out of the influence of the Victorian and early Edwardian periods and their desire to rediscover, reinvent, and reincarnate the Middle Ages. This influence swept across the arts, from furniture making to novel writing. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is perhaps the most familiar, along with the works of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and William Morris (who is, arguably, the father of the modern fantasy novel).

What’s important about the Victorian perception of the Middle Ages is that it directly affected the writing that came after (and in some cases, rebelled against) it. Because, as in all retellings, the Victorians could not leave the stories well enough alone–some, like Tennyson injected his ideals of courtly love and good conduct (Guenevere and Lancelot languish away as a nun and monk respectively) while Morris sought to illustrate the social ills of his day through Utopian visions of other worlds.

Aside from the Victorian preoccupation with the Middle Ages, there also came something else: the Gothic. And by this I not mean the style of building, nor do I mean a dark-haired pasty girl writing poetry about dead flowers in a corner at a coffee shop. No, I mean gothic literature, a combination of horror, science, romance, and history, all blended together to create some of the most enduring characters of our time (Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Invisible Man just to name a few). In many ways the Gothic typifies the Victorian perception of medieval landscapes–seen in earlier examples like Coleridge’s “Cristabel” and Keats’ “Lamia” poems–and contrasts their own concerns about science, magic, and power against them. Brilliant stuff.

And then there’s science and technology. Victorian literature, and later much Edwardian literature, often brims to the edge with excitement and enthusiasm on the subject of growing technologies in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (Verne‘s Voyages Extraordinaire) or skeptical of the power of science (Robert Louis Stephenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). That these stories still resonate with us today, still frighten us and inspire us over a century later, is quite remarkable.

I see steampunk fantasy, and steampunk science-fiction, then as a natural next step in this progression. We are, in a sense, reinventing the reinvention. We look to the Victorian period and understand their simultaneous excitement and tenuous approach to technology; we know what it is to want to discover our roots and delve into the mysteries of myth. New advances in DNA and gene research have given place names to people who sometimes feel as if their cultural identities have been lost in the melting pot.

Writers, makers, and cosplayers alike see the allure in the Lost Age of Steam because it in so many ways reflects our own. And as before, steampunk isn’t purely a movement across one or two disciplines. It’s pervasive. It’s become an aesthetic, a recognizable divergence from the norm (was is the goggles that gave it away?).

And I think what I love about it most is that, like Victorian medievalism and early science-fiction, it balks in the face of definition. It is not strictly historical, nor is it easily explained. It is moving and changing, different things to different people.

The gears, they keep on moving. Who knows what will come when the next century views ours?

The most influential film of my childhood years was Disney’s oft forgotten Sword in the Stone, adapted from T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It was my first real exposure to Arthuriana, and eventually led to my reading the full novel and, in fact, contributed significantly to my study of the Middle Ages in college. Plus, reflections of Merlin and Wart are in every early story I wrote (and, likely, still there in what I write today).

Since then, I’ve learned that much of SF/F deals with the taking, gaining, and control of power. It’s about stature, about relationships. It asks the questions that traditional fiction and nonfiction just can’t, because it (literally) removes us from our own world as we know it. It’s a long series of “what if’s” set to an intergalactic soundtrack that continues to kindle our imaginations.

But the very strengths of sci-fi and fantasy are what cause people to so often dismiss them. Oh sure, the Force is exciting–but start defining it as a parasite, and boy, we lose our love affair. Explain too much, and there’s no whimsy, no room for imagination. Critics of both genres hate the black-and-white delineation in novels and film. We live in a world where more and more, people realize that there are shades of gray, shifts in perception, and decisions we make that put us on one side of the fence or the other.

I don’t think SF/F will ever go away, and I certainly don’t want them to. But in order for these genres to survive, and to continue challenging readers and writers alike, we must fend off the expected. As writers, we owe it to our readers to write fully imagined characters, each with the good, the bad, and the ugly as part of who they are. Sure, archetypes are important–but we are all flawed, and we’ve all had to make choices. Nothing irks me more than “purely” good or bad characters.

And that brings me back to Arthur, I think. The thing I’ve always loved about the Arthurian canon is that, in spite of additions and emendations throughout the centuries, it’s not a happy ending. The most beloved knight in the entire kingdom not only fails at the quest for the Holy Grail, but has an elicit affair with the Queen who just happens to be the wife of his best friend, Arthur. (That this realistic approach was brought to life by medieval writers is amazing in and of itself!)

Everything falls apart. There is no celebration, no wedding, no making up. Sure, Mordred (usually) gets it in the end, but so does Arthur. The world he fought for is gone. Ended. Caput. T.H. White does a heartbreakingly good job of showing us this at the end of The Once and Future King. Near the book’s conclusion he writes, partially in Arthur’s own mind that

The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.

White was writing as a man in the middle of wars–both World Wars–and later as a conscientious objector. He asked the difficult questions, like the famous Might vs. Right argument and ultimately influenced a whole new generation of writers. Writers including, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling, Gregory Maguire and Ed McBain also cited White as an influence (from Wikipedia: T.H. White).

My point, my meandering and somewhat obvious point, is that we ought, as writers of these incredible genres, to hold up a mirror to our own world, and ask the important questions. Fantasy and science-fiction mean nothing if we cannot tie them to the human condition and contrast the far-off worlds to our own somehow. And it can happen in the most expected places, like the Arthurian canon for instance. It isn’t always what we say, but how we say it. This is from White again:

Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe–his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction. Perhaps Might was a law of Nature, needed to keep the survivors fit. Perhaps he himself…

Before dying, Arthur, the paragon of knightly virtue, the greatest of all men, cannot find the right answer. He cannot say what his life was worth, because he does not know. He cannot know. He is only a man in a story, in the end; but his thoughts, his questions, they become ours.

And in that way, he does continue on.

In that way, there is a great deal of hope.

Inspiration:

1 a: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions c: the act of influencing or suggesting opinions2: the act of drawing in; specifically : the drawing of air into the lungs

* * * *

Yesterday was not a writing day, in that I managed to find absolutely no time whatsoever to edit the book, and instead shuffled around doing grown-up things including working and grocery shopping, and some wonderfully not grown-up things like playing D&D with our awesome group of new found  friends. However, by the time I got home, well past my bedtime, I collapsed into bed.

So, technically, I didn’t make any progress in the novel.

However, as odd as the day was and, at first sight, too busy to be thinking of anything else than being a mom, an employee, and a friend, I had an oddly imaginative day.

I’m not sure how my brain does this, or why. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, when I’m overwhelmed by the day-in, day-out drudgery or something. But in the middle of some of the most repetitive, bland work, my brain suddenly turned on. I don’t remember what I was doing exactly, but I got a really cool idea for a series of steampunk short stories. A really, really cool idea (that, if I manage to pull off will be shared of course.) I don’t usually think in short-story bits. By nature I tend to think in book length, so this was a surprise (even the short story here is really just a kitchy little take on a character already in my book).

Then right smack-dab in the middle of our game last night (I had the most abysmal rolls last night–although I love the game, there’s something really annoying about being completely ineffectual during a fight… there was no love for my warlock) something started to crystallize in my brain.

First, there was the seed. A situation. A question. I asked myself a question in my head about a character in the Aldersgate Cycle, Ellinora (the princess), and suddenly I realized I’d been a) writing situations in book one that would be much more suited for book two b) had made her too young c) hadn’t given her enough background to make her as strong as the rest.

I also realized that about 30,000 words of this book in another two narratives needs to be moved out. It’s not like losing it, per se, because I know it’ll be used later. But one of the hard things about juggling a multi-POV narrative is balancing plot with character. I do mean with and not and, too. Unlike a normal, single POV novel, where you only have to worry about one plot, I am in essence balancing about 8. Some of the characters progressions are easy to plot, and their stories simple to intertwine. But as I move out of the Territories characters (Emry, Cora, and Brick) and into the Queensland characters (Kaythra, Ellinora, and Sylvan) the challenges become more intense. I’m dealing with political intrigue now, and plots that are part of years, decades, and in some cases, centuries

Deep. Breath. (Inspiration, perhaps?)

Anyway, essentially there’s a lot of work ahead of me in the weeks to come. But it’s not overwhelming. It’s exciting. These little seeds of thought often sprout into amazingly lovely flowers, if given the time and care.  But it’s a lot of maintenance and perseverance. As a writer in the “flail around in the dark until you find some plot” school, and not the “write everything down in a spiral notebook” crowd, I definitely need to find some way to organize myself more thoroughly.

But I’m not overwhelmed. I’m excited. This process has proved to me that I can challenge myself, which is important. Hopefully, the finished project will challenge the readers–albeit in a different way–as well.