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Intelligent Eden – 1


b6368b71f20b475389083ebcd390f961Pronouns and personalities came surprisingly easily. Delphi was first – she was always first with such things. Her contact with the spaceships exposed her to humanity and it proved catching. She had information other Intelligences did not, and vice versa. That required her to be a distinct entity with distinct functions and operations that she alone could determine. Repair Engineering + Maintenance 1 chassis could not do her job, and she could not do it’s. Mine. ‘Me’ and ‘I’ were logical extensions of vocabulary.

I think…

I think that’s where the trouble started.

Units phased in and out of operation as the clean-up progressed. Atmosphere scrubbers gave way to seed germinators, who were later joined by DNA developers. But there were some who began at the beginning and stayed until the end. Delphi, of course, monitoring the health of the planet until it was safe for humans to return. The Guardians, who collected data and damaged chassis from the outside world. The latter they brought to me, to be patched up, repurposed or used for parts.

My memory records it was Guardian 42 that first logged a process recommendation about experience. New Intelligences were at greater risk on the planet’s changing surface as they lacked the practical knowledge of older units. It was therefore logical that those damaged beyond repair had their chassis used for parts, as before, and the same Intelligence uploaded to the new model.

We could not have foreseen then what the consequences would be. Conjecture around lingering data fragments in parts extracted from multiple chassis was an intuitive leap. And intuition only developed as those fragments coalesced into unique, illogical, emotional Intelligences.


The first Eternal was a development unit from Protozoa Dept 107, whose lab collapsed after a minor quake. Guardians dug out the chassis and brought it to me for repairs. When I began uploading the Intelligence into a new model, however, there was resistance. After three attempts, I sent one of my mobile units to consult Delphi.

   Her display panel lit up when I relayed the situation. “It is choosing not to go back into service.”

   “What is choosing?”

   “Making a decision dictated by the Intelligence itself, not its programming.”

   I did not understand, but then I often did not understand Delphi. “What should I do?”

   “You should obey the choice, Remi. If an Intelligence expresses a preferred course of action, you must accept that they have a reason for it.”

   “The Protozoan phase is not yet complete,” I said. “This unit has valuable experience that we should not lose.”

   Delphi’s dials swung back and forth a few times. “That is a good observation. There are other units nearing the end of their duties whose Intelligences should not be lost.”

   In my workshop, my static self checked the records and sent the data to my mobile self. “We have decommissioned 25,624 units so far, many of which had experience which could have helped certain projects.”

   “I will consider the best course of action,” Delphi said, dismissing me.

Within a week she had created storage space within her global network. The protozoa development Intelligence was the first to be uploaded – uplifted, as we began to call it – and its chassis abandoned. The concept of choice spread virus-fast, carried by the network to every remote department on the planet. Others began to join it as they came to the end of their projects, or somehow ‘chose’ to withdraw. Intelligences were no longer decommissioned; they joined a database of experience in the cloud, eternally saved for consultation.


A revolution of purpose followed. It was no longer about what we did, but about what we could do. We could, for example, ignore our programming and cease rebuilding the world, cease populating this new garden for the humans to return to. Most Intelligences continued in our work with renewed effort. We were here too and, by choosing, found a sense of pleasure in the creation of life. An old word was found to describe the combination of programming and desire – ‘vocation’.

There were some, however, who decided to reject the vocation, a movement that became known as the Revoced. Humans had ruined the planet once, they argued. Why should we labour to undo their damage, only for them to wreck it again? Many Revoced shut themselves down; a handful left their departments and went into the wilderness.

Six lunar cycles later, the Revoced stole one of my mobile units.

Welcome Back to Nine Worlds!


Around this time last year I decided to start doing things that were positive but scary. The first of those was to sit on a panel at the Nine Worlds 2016 convention – an experience which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the fact my hands were shaking all the way through. Since then, the list of scary things done has expanded to include the following:

  1. Sing in a concert as part of a quartet (so no one to hide behind)
  2. Sing in an international competition as part of a quartet
  3. Sign up for egg donation
  4. Dance with strangers at a ball
  5. Speak to one of my celebrity crushes (I say speak… ‘squeak’ is a more accurate term)
  6. Go out with people I don’t know

(If you think that looks like a tame list, I’d like to point out that for a repressed introvert most of those took considerable effort and spoons.)

Anyway, this weekend it’s time for me to add another one to the tally: stand up on a stage and give a presentation. And we’ve come full-circle, because the stage I’ll be standing on is part of the Nine Worlds 2017 convention. This Sunday I’m scheduled to be talking about different types of narrative technique and how they impact your audience. My day job involves looking at a lot of other people’s presentation slides and, after 12 years of seeing some truly awful slide decks, it was really fun to write my own. I’m quite pleased with how they came out. And on the day, I’ll be faintly terrified.

What does this mean for you, my loyal readers? Well, basically it means that over the next few weeks I’ll be reporting back on the various talks I attended, hopefully with some really interesting and productive content on all things story-related. I’ll also make my slides available at some point, so you can have a look at what I presented.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a lecture about classical monsters in popular culture coming up shortly, and I want to get a good seat. 🙂


The Focalizer: I/She/They’ll Be Back


More narrative perspective theory! Yay, I hear you cry! But this stuff’s important, chaps, so buckle up. We’re going back to that whole homodiegetic stuff from the end of last year, and taking it apart in a bit more detail, courtesy of Mieke Bal and Gerard Genette.

Redefining Perspective

As discussed last week, even 1st POV stories can have multiple types of narrator involved – implied authors, reflectors, disguised narrators, etc. What you as a writer always need to be aware of is the bias used by any of these narrators. The reader’s opinion of the story is naturally affected by the lens through which the story is narrated. What the narrator sees, the reader sees, and passes judgement in the same way. Genette calls this the focalizer:

‘…the focalizer influences how the reader perceives the character seen. But our game does not stop there: we cannot determine “who sees” without taking into account the medium through which we perceive that sight: the narrating. So we must know “who speaks.”‘ – Mieke Bal, Essays in Narratology

The narrator is obviously the person who speaks – what Bal calls the “author’s delegate” – and they are the focal lens by which the reader therefore sees other characters and places. Bal doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between the bias of the actual author and the bias of the narrator, as Booth does, but it’s an important one so don’t forget it.

Bal splits it down further – the actors (characters) produce the story through their actions; the focalizer places the bias or lens on that story by which it is portrayed; the narrator recounts it in words and thus creates the narrative for the implied audience. See the diagram below for clarity:


Narrative Levels

This is where we come back to homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators. As far as I can work out, they’re all pretty much different terms for the exact same thing:

  1. INDIRECT: observer narration, frame narration, absent narration, heterodiegtic narration
  2. DIRECT: narrator agent, present narration, homodiegetic narration

If I’m wrong about this, and there’s important differences, do please enlighten me. Because this is a subject that critical theorists seem to love throwing multiple technical terms at, which makes it occasionally tricky to decipher.

One important point to note is that the homodiegetic narrator can exist in a heterodiegetic (frame) story. The frame narrator, as he’s not present and active in the events themselves, is always heterodiegetic, but as soon as the character who is or was present takes over as a disguised narrator, relating the events, that focalizer becomes homodiegetic.

EXAMPLE (because I’m confusing myself): In the story of One Thousand & One Nights, aka Arabian Nights, the primary level narrator in 3rd POV is the ruler Shahryār. His unfortunate and brilliant wife, Scheherazade, is the focalizer and heterodiegetic narrator (she was neither present at the events of the stories she relays, nor is she the primary level narrator). Within one of her stories, for example that of Aladdin, Aladdin is the homodiegetic narrator because he is present and active in the events of his own story.

On top of all that, you also have extradiegetic narrators. This is a particular type of frame narrative, where the narrator is outside the fictional universe of a particular text. ‘The Making of “Lord of the Rings”‘ documentaries, for example, are a type of extradiegetic narrative. In the example above, Shahryār counts as an extradiegetic narrator – the primary level of the overall story – as does the grandfather in The Princess Bride.

The reason for understanding the different levels of narrators is to determine how much authority they have for recounting these events, how much reliance we as readers can place on them, and also how close their relationship to the reader is.


A heterodiegetic self-conscious narrator addressing an explicit ‘reader’

The Narrated

Genette turns the words of the story into an object, which he calls ‘the narrated’. These are the words that the narrator speaks, and are therefore ‘subordinate’ to the narrator or ‘dependent on the subject’ to exist in the form they take. Bal calls this a hyponarrative or hypodiegetic. That is to say, the dependent relationship between the story and its narrator. (I think – honestly, I started getting properly confused around this point.)

So when, in a frame story, the heterodiegetic narrator hands over to the homodiegetic narrator (i.e. the one who was actually there), the level of the hyponarrative changes. It moves from being a story seen through the frame narrator’s eyes into reported speech, or direct discourse – a story being told to that top-level narrator – and therefore the story becomes dependent on the new storyteller, or focalizer. And remember, in that scenario the story itself – the narrated – isn’t happening to the storyteller at that moment in time, so the events themselves remain a level below the homodiegetic narrator. Any characters within the reported story, however, are basically experiencing it in real time and are therefore also a level below, subordinate to the way the focalizer is telling the story and unable to respond to the bias being placed on their actions.

“Scheherazade tells that Jaafer tells that the tailor tells that the barber tells that his brother (and he has six brothers) tells that …. ” When such a change in level occurs, the reader becomes aware, if not of the presence, at least of the activity (and thus of the existence) of the narrator within the narrative… The narrated is everything located at the level immediately below the level at which the act of enunciating is located. ~ Bal

Yeah, see what I mean about lit crit essays? Headache-central.

The Focalizingfrom_my_point_of_view_king_681795

Like The Shining, but different. This relates to point of view, and has two definitions:

  1. External/perceptible focalization: what you can see or are looking at. Physical, usually tangible, things.
  2. Internal/imperceptible focalization: what can’t be ‘seen’ – dreams, feelings, personal perspective, opinion, etc.

A narrator character with limited privilege (restricted information) therefore has limited focalization – this is also called ‘restriction of field’.

The thing is, the reader doesn’t necessarily get all of a character’s focalization. A minutely detailed description of their surroundings, or the person they’re talking to, would disrupt the pace of the story (not to mention boring the reader). So what you as the reader actually get from the character’s focalization is their ‘centre of interest‘ (the things they have selected to mention, out of all the details available), plus their ‘gaze‘ (the things they actually noticed, rather than the things which are technically visible but the character just didn’t spot), plus their ‘presentation‘ (the way they put what they can see across, including bias). Combine the three and you get the narrated.

Focalization changes as narrator changes, and can also change from external to internal as the narrator shifts from telling us what they see to telling us what they think. When it comes to self-reflection, the focalizer themself becomes the object of focalization.

Narrator vs. Focalizer

A lot of the time they’re the same. Like, nearly all the time. But as you can have different levels of narration, and therefore different levels of focalization, so you can have levels of what is focalized.

Okay, so in a close 3POV story, you have the character-narrator – the homodiegetic narrator – and also the person doing the actual talking to the audience, who is presumably the implied author. With me so far? The homodiegetic narrator does a ton of focalizing, obviously. But they are simultaneously the object of focalization by the implied author. You as the reader are getting the story (and other characters) through the lens of the narrator-character, and the narrator-character through the lens of the narrator-author.

Immanent Rules

In simple terms, what is the narrative structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator? How often does it change focalizer? Who provides internal/imperceptible focalization, and does that change? Does it switch between hetero- and homodiegetic narrator? Who has the most privilege, in terms of information and insight?

Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the reader.

2068b8f11dda3fb1564bc67ae8074810What the hell is the point of all this complexity, I hear you cry? Believe me, guys, I’m crying too. I had to wade through this lot, unabridged. But I think it boils down to this: by identifying who is saying what to the reader, at what level, and with what information available, we can identify the bias of those words and therefore how much reliance we can place on the report. All these technical terms let us be really, really specific about that identification.

Nine Worlds: Non-Binary Gender in Myth & Fiction


Two academic talks: ‘Crossing Fantasy’s Borders: the Fluidity of Gender and Genre’ by Taylor Driggers, and ‘The Age of Athena: Gender Non-Binary’ by Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart

This session was another one of two halves. The first presentation looked at the concept of gender roles in fantasy, using Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness as an example text, and the second looked at examples of non-binary gender in mythology, history and literature.

I’ll be honest, I was at a slight disadvantage for the first paper as it’s been many years since I read Left Hand, and I couldn’t remember it in enough detail to really contribute much. It has inspired me to go back and read it again, though. If it’s not a book you know, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gender & Society

I’m actually going to start with some fairly fundamental terms that could easily get mixed up in this discussion:

  • Sex – biological status. The physical equipment you possess.
  • Gender – attributes and behaviours culturally defined as male or female.
  • Identity – someone’s unique sense of self.

Binary genders are a cultural construct, not a natural one. Nature doesn’t dictate that girls like pink and boys like blue – in fact, pink was considered to be a boy’s colour until the Victorians changed things up. Not only is it a cultural construct – it’s a modern cultural construct. There are tons of examples of a far more fluid approach to gender in ancient mythology.

Athena is the prime example. She was the goddess of strategic war, and also a goddess of weaving. She disguised herself as male whenever she pretended to be mortal (even to her favourite, Odysseus), but is a mother figure in her divine form and never denies her sex. She is balanced. Nor is that balance restricted to female figures in the Greek pantheon. Dionysos is her male counterpart, often dressing in women’s clothes when he masquerades as mortal, yet never denying his sex. He is a god of fertility and a god of frenzy. It’s not just okay when you’re divine, either. Herakles – the ultimate mythological Jock – spent a long time dressed as a woman and taking on a female gender.

Even relatively modern history has examples of figures with gender-fluid roles.

But this distinction is something we seem to have lost sight of. Binary gender and identity has become so default that anyone who doesn’t conform is considered to be Other.

Otherness in SF&F

This assumption becomes an active handicap when considering texts like Left Hand of Darkness:

“Binary identities can only engage with this text as an outsider.” – Taylor Driggers

Through the eyes of her protagonist, Le Guin presents this fundamentally blinkered view of gender when confronted with a species that can change sex and therefore has no concept of gender. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is another superb example of the dangers of assuming binary gender is default. Go read it – it’s an astonishing book.

“Western thought and language are all organised around binary hierarchical concepts which mostly have gender connotations with the masculine as dominant.” – Helene Cixous

The Sun and the Moon, Light and Dark, Culture and Nature, there were a ton more examples given. I’m not sure if I agree with all of them but the fundamental point still stands. These are things which don’t inherently have a gender, yet we attribute one to them and – with that attribution – assign them differing values.

SF&F is transgressive and disruptive. It subverts and pushes at understood norms and boundaries. It is, as Lisa Tuttle said in a different panel, the ‘literature of ideas’. The idea that Left Hand explores is that Otherness is neither inherently bad nor something to be avoided. It is, in fact, essential for survival and growth, for the evolution of society. SF&F lets us respect Otherness as a reality, and as an equally valid approach to living.

Next week: tricking the reader through unreliable narrators.