Monthly Archives: October 2016

244. Walking by Night

outhouseHere in California, Halloween doesn’t look like itself any more. I suspect the same metamorphosis is taking place across the country. Images from the Mexican Day of the Dead are everywhere, competing with Anglo witches, ghosts, goblins, and jack-o-lanterns.

It’s no surprise, really, since Halloween has become a $econd Chri$tmas, in terms of commerce. I have no trouble understanding why retailers are producing big-eyed, flower painted skulls for sale. I have some trouble understanding why anyone is buying them.

As a matter of full disclosure, I don’t care for Halloween, and at both ends of my life I have had little to do with it. In the middle, when I lived in cities, I hosted the trick-or-treaters who came to my door, just like everyone else. I admit the mid-level kids were fun and putting up with a little pleasant extortion was just being a good grown-up. I wasn’t much impressed by the adults with infants in arms, or the overaged teenagers who grunted and threatened like gang bangers. But many Americans have no sense of age appropriateness, so they were no surprise.

Anyway, I would be a hypocrite if I hated trick-or-treaters after all my praise of Christmas last year. After all, trick-or-treat and wassailing are the same ritual.

I haven’t had a trick-or-treater at my door since I retired to the foothills, and that brings me full circle. When I was young – during the fifties in very rural Oklahoma –  we didn’t trick-or-treat. We were simply too spread out. It would have been impossible to walk to anyone’s house, and in those days parents weren’t about to drive their children all over the county just for their amusement.

Instead, the local tradition was ritualized vandalism by teenagers. That was the night outhouses got turned over – and yes, people still used them. Windows got egged, toilet paper got tossed, there was even some graffiti. In Oologah, the next town south, I saw a business sign which had been tagged with Oologah hoars. Vandals couldn’t spell back then either.

As October rolled around, all the adults started telling outhouse stories from their misspent youths, and current youths started planning. I took no part in any of it, but I heard it all, and one story in particular caught my fancy. I think it was true; at least I knew the old lady in question.

She lived in a little house in town, with no plumbing and an outhouse out back. Every year somebody turned it over on Halloween, and she was tired of it. This year, she went out when it was still light and settled in to wait with a shotgun across her knees. Eventually it got dark, and eventually she heard whispers and the first creak as the local teenagers got a grip the outhouse. She threw the door open, leaped out and gave a mighty scream, and fired both barrels into the air. When the echoes cleared, there was no sound but retreating footsteps.

The old woman went to bed with a smile on her face. The would-be vandals, once they recovered from their fright, had the memory of a priceless adrenaline rush and a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

I love it when everybody wins.

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Raven’s Run 34

We walked up to Notre-Dame de la Garde to enjoy the view of Marseille, then worked our way down through the maze of twisting streets and back to the consulate. We were scheduled to have lunch with Will. He came out dressed in pale slacks, a loose white shirt and loafers, and led us immediately to his small Renault. He said, “I’ve been working extra this last month, helping out after hours with backed up paperwork so I could take some time off when Ian arrived. Do you have bathing suits on board the Wahini?”

I nodded and Raven giggled. Will didn’t get it; he would when he saw his gag-gift string bikini put to good use. Will double parked at the quai. Raven and I went below to change and get towels while Will inspected the Wahini.

Will took us south and east along the coast. It was a land of deep green dusty trees and bare red earth, twisted and hilly. The coast was indented with calanques with narrow strips of sand or gravel at their bases. Raven rode silently, curled up in the tiny back seat while Will and I talked about the Wahini and the crossing. She remained quiet while Will parked at the roadside, pulled a backpack out of the trunk, and took us on a narrow, dusty footpath that led by many twists and diversions down to a small, sandy beach. A dozen sunbathers were already there, scattered in twos and threes around the hidden cove, enjoying the sun without the crowds of tourists that flooded the more accessible beaches.

We spread our towels and Will opened the backpack. He spread a tablecloth on the sand and produced a bottle of Bandol, glasses, Perrier for me, cheese, bread rolls, half a dozen kinds of cold meats, melon slices, grapes, and chutneys. He split one of the rolls, made and handed Raven a sandwich. She said, “Yum.”

“Do I have to make my own,” I asked.

“Of course.”

I did. Raven said, “You may put food before beauty, but I’m not going to waste any of this sun.” She reached up to unbutton her blouse. She had locked eyes with Will and he stopped chewing to watch her fingers flipping buttons with casual efficiency. She shed the blouse with a twist of her shoulders. As she folded it and set it aside, she asked Will, “Does anything look familiar?”

“My heart’s desire? All my dreams made flesh?”

Devil lights were in Raven’s eyes. She had Will in the palm of her hand, and she was enjoying it. “No, silly,” she giggled. “I meant the bra.”

Will looked blank. And smitten. The bikini top consisted of two spaghetti straps, one around her body and the other tied behind her neck, with minimal triangles of red nylon.

“He never saw it out of its egg,” I said. I tried to keep my voice light, but I didn’t like the way things were developing.

“Then I’ll have to show him.” She took the cuff of her jeans and pulled the little zipper that closed it tight around her ankle. It made a crisp rasping sound that send chills up my back. Again for the other cuff, then she stood up in one fluid motion. Her hair was a black mass, her skin was flawless, her waist was slender, and her navel played peek-a-boo above the waistband of her jeans. She untied the sash and pulled it through the belt loops in a smooth motion and dropped it to the sand. She turned away and again the rasp of a zipper sent chills. Swiveling her hips she forced the jeans down past her thighs. The string bikini left her buttocks quite bare, and in delicious motion.

When she bent over to recover her jeans, the illusion of nakedness was complete.

She stood facing us, folding the jeans, with her legs a little apart, and her eyes on Will. “Well,” she said, “what do you think?”

“Jesus Christ! more tomorrow

243. On Fantasy: Archaism

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism in fantasy is easy to achieve. You could almost write a formula:

HORSES + SWORDS + MAGIC = FANTASY

Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time before known time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time. Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2016s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

You could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly teeth from dastardly villains – or dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Austin, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.

Raven’s Run 33

Upwardly mobile, that’s us. Just a couple of yuppies.”

“Us?”

“Us,” I said. “I passed my state department tests, too. It’s just a matter of time until they call me in. Until then, my plans were to deliver the Wahini to Will and then wander around Europe on the cheap.”

Raven shook her head. “You two are incredible.”

Will pulled out his wallet and counted out some bills. He handed them to Raven and said, “Lovely as you are, I recognize sailcloth when I see it sewn into a dress. Why don’t you go get some clothing while your passport is being processed. Then I would like to take the two of you out on the town after work. Deal?”

“Deal,” Raven grinned. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

Outside, I got my jackknife back from the guard and we headed back down toward la Canebiere. Raven was counting her francs. She said, “You didn’t tell me your friend was such a hunk.”

“Would you have?”

“No. He gave me six hundred francs. How much real money is that?”

(Aside:  1989 was before the Euro.)

“About a hundred dollars.”

“What? How many clothes can I buy for that?”

“You could buy three or four outfits like I’m wearing. Not counting shoes. But counting socks.”

She gave me a sideways appraisal and said, “I can believe that.”

#          #         #

Will mentioned bouillabaisse and we both said, “No!”, so he took us for couscous at a tiny restaurant on Longue des Capucins. It wasn’t fancy; they wouldn’t have let us into a fancy place. I was still in levis and khaki. Raven wore a pair of stone washed jeans one size smaller than her skin, a short, sleeveless lavender blouse that stopped two inches above her belt line, with a matching sash threaded through her belt loops and trailing down her left leg, and sandals. She had received eight francs in change at the boutique, and considered herself a thrifty shopper. By her standards, no doubt she was.

Will had a hard time not staring; I didn’t even try to restrain myself.

As the sun went down, Will herded us to a safer part of town.  We spent the rest of the night at the Ascenseur listening to a hot Brazilian trio, while Will gave Raven a seminar on French wines. I abstained. When we walked Will back to his apartment, he and Raven were both swaying slightly, and I felt like a designated driver.

The next morning, we slept in. By the time we walked to the consulate, the fishermen were packing up their unsold fish at the market and the early June sunlight was beginning to build up to a hot day. Will was busy, and we did not want to disturb him, so we picked up Raven’s new passport and left again. There was no word from Sacramento.

Supporting Raven was going to be a strain on my thin budget if her money didn’t come soon, but that was not my real worry. When her money came, she would be free to go. She might fly back to America, or she might wander around Europe for a while. She had talked about her options, without making any decision.

I did not want to lose her. Yet I might. I don’t think she felt much more for me than gratitude and affection. She was lovely and loving, but she was still a stranger. And I felt – what? If it wasn’t love, it was getting close. No one I had ever known had affected me as deeply as she did. If she left now, I would be losing something precious. more tomorrow

242. On Fantasy: Language

Up sword, sayeth Sir Gallant, lest I cleave thee where thou standest.

Yeah, that’s pretty bad, and it has been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of fake-ancient language used in fantasy, except as a joke.

Language in fantasy is both a necessary tool, and a dangerous one. You can’t just throw in some thees and thous and -ests, but you also can’t speak in modern, colloquial English. Simple formality is the easiest way out. Even Zelazny, for all his smart-ass-with-a-sword characters, wrote with intelligence and a great deal of formality. If you want your characters to speak slang, you have to invent slang appropriate to their world, and that takes some effort.

Remember, whatever language your characters speak, even if you are setting your fantasy in early England, no one on Earth speaks that language today. In my fantasy world of the Menhir there are three languages in play, and a mid-sea island has a bastard language drawn from all three. It doesn’t matter. The book gets translated into English, whatever language the characters are speaking.

Whatever your genre, you are likely to have characters from different levels of society. Whether you are writing about nomads from the desert encountering the Pasha of Nevermore, or a Bostonian talking to a southern slave in 1845, you need to find a way to make your characters sound different from modern America, and from each other, but still be comprehensible. And it needs to sound natural. ‘Taint easy.

Languages – note the difference – are also dangerous, but at least you don’t have to invent one if you don’t want to. Tolkien did, to a degree far in excess of the needs of his stories. Almost no one else ever does.

I did, in a manner of speaking. The Menhir stories grew from a single image, and I had no idea for years where they were going. Things got invented, and the world of the Menhir grew by accretion. I invented a style of fighting, which required invention of a sword/lance, which required invention of a name, and lancette entered my story’s vocabulary. A thousand place names and personal names got invented. Gradually, the world grew a religious background which became the underpinning for what passes for magic on the world. This morphed into an entire system for the handling of life and death, and words like ai, enreithment, and abahara entered the vocabulary of the story. I invented a kind of peasant dwelling and now we had hartwa. My people started out with oxen and horses but that wasn’t satisfactory so they were soon riding kakais and using tichan to pull their wagons.

Words begat words, morphographically. Since ai means power and dzi– means man of, then a dziai is a man of power, and the men of the plains whose entire lives revolve around their mounts are, of course, the dzikakai.

As if that weren’t enough, my people started quoting words and phrases from the language of a nearby kingdom; just like the English quote the French, n’est-ce pas. I eventually made myself a glossary, but don’t take that as a requirement. I’ve been living on the world of the Menhir, part time at least, for four decades, but even I get confused sometimes.

**      **       **

I’ve told this story before, but I can’t leave the subject of language in fantasy without repeating it. The scene, as I recall, was Westercon 33, Los Angeles, in 1980. A panel of writers and editors was discussing fantasy, and things had gotten out of hand. After a grueling discussion of what some magical breed of horses in Lord of the Rings ate, they had moved on to the subject of archaic language. Somebody said it was okay, but don’t overdo it. Somebody said archaisms should be used sparingly, like spice in food. That went back and forth for several minutes until some wag in the audience stood up and asked, “Are you saying we can have archaic, and eat it too?”

I wish I had thought of that.

Raven’s Run 32

Take my word for it, Ian is just about as broke as Raven.”

Evan Cummings looked politely disbelieving. “A yachtsman, broke? Really?”

Will said, “Really,” and turned to Raven. “The consulate has a fund for stranded travelers, but it is not official money. It comes from donations and fund raisers by the officer’s wives and it is never quite sufficient to our needs. For a friend, a small loan will be my treat.”

Cummings rose and we joined him. “First a photo,” he said, “then Will will show you how to make an international call.”

We trooped down for the photo, then Will led us to his desk, dialed the number Raven gave him, and handed her the receiver. “Daddy’s secretary said that my father would be out of town for another two days,” Raven explained as the connection was made, “so I’ll leave a message on his answering machine at home.” Then she turned her attention inward, her head bobbing slightly as she followed the recorded message. She said, very fast, “Daddy, if you haven’t talked to Elena, call her. She has the details of what happened to me. I’m at the consulate in Marseille. I’ve lost my money and I need you to send me a couple of thousand.”

There is always a moment of dissatisfaction at the end, when you’ve talked to a machine as if it were a human. Raven’s face registered it, then she passed the phone back to Will, who hung it up. Will’s face was full of mischief. He said, “A couple of thousand?”

Raven didn’t get it. She turned to me for enlightenment, but I was shaking from the effort of not laughing out loud. She looked irritated at being left out of the joke and became more irritated when it dawned on her that we were laughing at her.

Finally, I controlled myself enough to say, “I’m sorry, Raven. A couple of thousand is probably reasonable, for you and your family. Will and I aren’t used to moving in those circles. We both worked our way through college, where a ‘couple of thousand’ might have to last us a semester.”

“You two own a yacht!”

“We built a yacht. I had a rich aunt who gave me a job as a guard at her freight yard and paid me more than I was worth. She gave me the opportunity to work my way through college, but she wouldn’t pay my way. That’s the kind of person she was. Wahini was in the back of the freight yard, about half finished. It came with the property when my aunt bought out a bankrupt competitor who spent too much time dreaming of Tahiti and not enough time tending to business. When Will and I decided to finish her, she agreed to buy the materials, if we would do the work. That’s how we got her.”

“But it takes money to travel.”

“That depends on how you travel. Why do you think we ate canned stew all the way across?”

Raven grinned. She had forgiven us. She said, “I just though you had no taste.”

“Close. I have never had the chance to acquire taste. Unlike Will . . .; Will, how much did you pay for that suit?”

Will held the lapels back to display the perfectly tailored vest and chuckled, “Half of my first paycheck. I arrived at Marseille in blue jeans, with one cheap suit in a cardboard suitcase. Upwardly mobile, that’s us. Just a couple of yuppies.” more tomorrow

241. On Fantasy: Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Clarke’s third law.

The universe is full of forces; some of those forces are personalities.
reference lost

I believe that the second quotation above is from a piece by James Blish, which I read many years ago and no longer have available to me. If anyone recognizes the source, let me know. In that same piece, I believe, he spoke of Black Easter as an experiment in which he treated the Book of Revelation as simple fact. Roger Zelazny made a career out of treating non-Western religions as if they were simple fact.

Like stardrives, magic can be highly structured or haphazardly thrown in when the story needs it. Both styles work, depending on the skill of the author. The most organized magic I recall is Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. For disorganization, see any new author.

A primary, underlying question in any presentation of a fantasy world is, “Where does the magic come from?” Is it a dispersed, readily available natural resource like The Force in Star Wars? Does it reside within its wielder, and a natural consequence of his being? Or is it owned by other powerful beings, who must be supplicated or bargained with to obtain a portion of their power? This choice has a huge effect on how dark the story is likely to become.

Christianity, in earlier centuries, saw witches as wielders of power which they obtained by pacts with Satan. Harmful as they were, they had no power of their own. In many dark fantasies, the searcher after power obtains his heart’s desire from some greater being who is, in essence, a Satanic stand-in. Such Faustian bargains never end well.

Magic, in fantasy writing, often goes unexplained. The talisman in The Monkey’s Paw is understood by the reader without elaboration, just as a reader of westerns doesn’t need an explanation of how a six gun works.

It is quite usual for a fantasy hero to have inborn power. Harry Potter was a wizard born of wizards. Ged is an unknown until his power is discovered by a mage. Corwin is a son of Amber.

It is equally usual to concentrate on the education of a wizard, or mage, or dziai. Ged went to Roke; Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, and my Tidac took two books to learn how to use his power because he had no mentor. His father never learned, and it destroyed him.

Can we have fantasy without magic? Pavane is an alternate universe science fiction or an alternate history novel, but its tone makes it read like fantasy, except for the absence of magic. What seems to be magic in one chapter, may just be a dying dream; it isn’t made clear to the reader. For me, this places Pavane on the borderline between genres.

On the other hand, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories are all about magic, but their system of magic is so comprehensively worked out that they read like science fiction.

I know that my Menhir story, in its infancy, read like a quasi-medieval world. Slowly I came to grips with how the powers of every soul are affixed to menhirs at death, making menhirs into gestalt sentient beings which become repositories of power that can be tapped, at peril, by men of power. Only then did magic come into the world of the menhir. And only then did it begin to read as fantasy.