Tag Archives: history

Nine Worlds: The City in SFF

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Panellists discuss the architecture of SFF – how cities are represented and how they can flavour a story. The discussion will range from the dystopian feel of cyberpunk urban jungle to the various flavours of fantasy as well as examining how real world cities are seen in fiction.
Panellists: Amy Butt, Jared Shurin, Al Robertson, Verity Holloway

Welcome to my favourite session of Nine Worlds 2017, by some considerable margin. I wrote twice the amount of notes for this panel that I did for any other, and came away buzzing with ideas.

It’s worth citing credentials for this one. Amy Butt is a practicing architect and architectural design tutor at Brighton University; Jared Shurin works for a creative agency and has been involved in marketing projects ranging from book launches to the renovation of Battersea Power Station; Al Robertson and Verity Holloway are writers whose books are focused around cities. The question they started with was how do the spaces we occupy help to inspire and engage, but the conversation got considerably deeper straight off the bat. Brace yourselves, because I’m about to go on a bit. 🙂

The Metaphorical City

First off, the panel used the term ‘psychogeography’ which I hadn’t heard before. Apparently it means the impact of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. This is something that played heavily into the whole discussion. There are power dynamics to how you move through complex contested spaces, which we’ll go into in more depth below. The panel took psychogeography a little further, though, to talk about how built spaces have rights to us (not just a behavioural impact) – something which can be overlooked. Environmentalism is a prime example. Parks and rivers have a claim on our duty of care, which we often fail to live up to. How does this then feed back into the psychogeographical impact those spaces continue to have on us? It’s a slow downwards spiral.

This suggests the city is a spiritual entity – something William Blake strongly bought into. He wrote a considerable amount of poetry about the spiritual version of London (which he called Golgonooza), essentially saying it had a soul. This has been an enduring idea throughout history, actually. The Romans believed every place had a guardian spirit called a lares; the Ancient Greeks believed the physical and spiritual aspects of a place had different names (the river at Troy, for example was called Scamander for the water and Xanthos for the spirit); both Old and New Testaments talk about territorial spirits (possibly fallen angels) with responsibilities over certain geographical areas. There’s tons of polytheistic religions that assign individual spirits to physical areas. If you think of the city as a living entity, something with a soul, how does that impact design, usage and atmosphere? Does that change how people live in it, or how you write it? Does it change how the city itself evolves? As one of the panellists said, “a place doesn’t exist purely in the present. There’s also what it wants to be, and what it used to be.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that because there’s not just one version of the city. There’s the version we see, and the version other lifestyles see. There’s always someone serving coffee at 5 a.m. at Heathrow Airport, for example. What is their city like? How do they get to work before public transport is running? Where do they get their breakfast before the cafes are open? Cities never sleep because there’s always part of the population awake. That means the city is multiple places simultaneously, all of which feel and operate very differently.

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This makes them challenging to write. We consume books and stories in an orderly, linear way – utterly unlike living in a city. It’s almost impossible to capture that feeling on the page. This is a very similar sentiment to the one made in the ‘realistic characters’ podcast two weeks ago, which lends weight to the idea of a city being alive. So perhaps the best way is to let the two entities explore each other, and thus throw light on both complex creations. It’s therefore just as important to write convincing spaces as it is to write realistic characters.

We can use the built environment as a metaphor for the cultural setting. Walls and doors, for example, can tell us a lot about local attitudes towards privacy, security, politics, economics, class structure and relationships. A single constructed geographical feature is able to demonstrate multiple cultural layers. Genre fiction can also use the built environment to socially critique the real world in this manner. Culture generates architecture, after all, and fictional architecture can be used to explore non-fictional uses.

The panel broke this down in an interesting fashion for the different genres:

  • Fantasy is things that will never happen – cities that can be extreme metaphors and social critique
  • SciFi is things that might happen – cities that explore what would be necessary to bring that future into being, or avoid it
  • Horror is things we don’t want to happen – cities that showcase the dark spaces where things don’t work or aren’t safe

Certain areas of the city have acquired tropes as a result, particularly in the horror genre. Suburbs are frequently shown as psychologically evil, for example, where everyone is watching all the time but no one speaks out. High rises are the modern castle, impenetrable for anyone unfamiliar with the space. That makes them perfect places for illicit activities, safe from surveillance.

Victorian mental asylums are a particularly interesting example. They were originally intended to be wonderful spaces that solved the mistakes of past hospitals. Verity Holloway’s ancestor was heavily involved in their design and she’s seen letters that he wrote in which the importance of soft towels and large windows was heavily emphasised. They used concrete because it was the cutting edge of construction technology, not knowing that it retained smells and damp. Despite all their good intentions and efforts, they failed – they failed so badly, in fact, that the meaning of the word ‘asylum’ itself was changed.

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Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Southgate, London – designed more like a spa than a prison

The Evolution of Architecture

In contrast to Blake’s approach, the architect Le Corbusier considered the city to be more of a machine with every individual house operating as a single cell or cog within it. He designed his buildings to be almost uniform – lots of white walls and no decoration – to encourage uniformity in living. “You became a more useful human being because of the way you slotted into the city.” His fascist politics were a key driver to how he designed buildings.

Political intent has always had an impact on urban development. It dictates patterns of behaviour and styles of living. If houses are designed with limited storage, it encourages minimalism; if they are designed with small kitchens, it increases the chances of people eating out a lot. Similarly, structures and areas getting run down is a political statement, whether deliberate or through neglect. It tells the occupants that nobody cares about those areas, which suggests the residents and the things that happen there are equally unimportant.

Cities are constantly renewing and rebuilding. They are inherently environments where things get broken down and changed. Sometimes this is a deliberate attempt to obliterate the past; sometimes it’s done to prepare for the future, and those preparations give a strong insight into what the future is believed to involve. This de/reconstruction isn’t just on the physical environment, either. Human relationships and interactions are equally disrupted as a result. The Grenfell Tower disaster of June this year left over 100 families homeless, and plans were made to rehouse them in various locations around London. The survivors were dismayed by the prospect of having their community broken apart. Many of their living styles were dependent on remaining in that area. They had children at local schools, for example, or family carers living nearby.

One of the problems with Grenfell Tower was that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and that’s a common issue with built environments. There’s an increasing trend amongst contemporary architects to try and tackle this problem by using Virtual and Augmented Reality whilst designing. It enables them to explore the space and how it might be used, looking at evolving society requirements. It also allows them to take influence from fictional architecture – there’s a fascinating article on DesignBoom about fairytale urban designs, and what they tell us about the interplay between people and space. This includes some serious questions about identity, privacy and access.

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The Great Wall of America by Carly Dean & Richard Nelson-Chow

Urban Identity & Privacy

Let’s start with access. The high rise castles mentioned above are a great example of how public access to private areas can be controlled. There was discussion about police access to trouble-spots in high-rises, and how in certain places they just don’t bother because they can’t control the ground. That’s individuals limiting access by public entities. On the corporate side, it gets a bit more Huxley-an.

There’s a large number of pseudo-public spaces – areas that appear to be public until you transgress the invisible rules and are excluded. These are mostly controlled by corporate entities, and you are incentivized into certain lifestyles or jobs in return for access. This isn’t new – gentlemen’s clubs are the classic Regency-era example. Now we have semi-private gardens and member’s bars. There’s no particular basis for reason in these invisible rules, they are simply put in place by the controlling entity. There’s no essential modern difference between ‘you can’t eat meat on Fridays’ and ‘you can’t eat sandwiches here’. Corporations become the arbiters of behaviour and morality, allowing us only the illusion of choice. We are managed into a position where spaces push us into the role of either spectators or consumers, because the corporate architecture funnels us into that behaviour. Even our social lives are corporately owned and data-mined by social media corporations like Facebook.

Jared Shurin, who is a self-styled American immigrant, observed that he can clearly see places where the class system wields even more power over space. Fox hunts, for example, go wherever they like with scant regard for the occupation of public or private spaces.

As an individual, your experience of the city depends on routine and other people. If either of those things change, your city changes. On a personal note I recently changed dance studios, moving from Liverpool Street to Borough. That means I now take a meandering walk through side-alleys that (when it gets dark earlier) will feel distinctly less safe than the bright lights and busy streets of Liverpool Street. The atmosphere of my routine has changed as the bits of city I visit changed.

Then there’s the issue of privacy. The UK has a higher percentage of CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. How does that impact our patterns of behaviour, our psychology, just knowing we’re being watched? Al Robertson conjectured that it was a major contributor to urban paranoia: “Everyone’s watching everyone else but no one’s talking to each other.” Yet, despite this constant scrutiny, cities remain places where you can get lost. There’s a weird dichotomy between surveillance and invisibility, and the gaps allow people to reinvent their identity or become completely anonymous.

The spaces of a city, and the life within it, is created by people constantly moving through – either from one place to another, or from an old state to a new one. The population is often transitory but the city endures. As (I think) Robertson said, the measure of London citizenship isn’t where you’re from because everyone’s from somewhere else. What makes you a citizen is what you contribute, which brings us back to Le Corbusier’s idea of ‘useful human beings’. This is a very different dynamic to old villages inhabited constantly by the same families, who belong to the place by dint of occupation rather than contribution.

So how do we make these transitory, changing, controlling places our own? We write about them.

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Or draw them, of course

Next week: the mathematics of zombie epidemics

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Nine Worlds: The Darker Side of Fairytales

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Fairy tale figures and motifs permeate pop culture. Despite their reputation for being children’s stories, fairy tales more often tackle distinctly adult and unsavoury issues such as rape, cannibalism, domestic violence child abuse and incest. In this session we take a good long look at the darker side of the fairy tale and some of the surprising places that the fairy tale pops up.
Panellists: Dr. Karen Graham, Chris Wooding, Charlie Oughton, Sandie Mills, Dr. Jessica George

Fairytales are, for a lot of people, the first format of storytelling we come into contact with. Their structures are embedded deep in our subconscious, but these days we mostly only know the sanitized versions peddled by the Grimm brothers, who judged that any reference to sex wasn’t appropriate for society (although gore was just fine, which begs the question how much our contemporary values are still informed by the propagation of this particular morality whilst we’re children being told bedtime stories).

The basic structure of fairytales stems from aural tradition. This can be seen in stock phrases like ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’, and in-story repetition such as ‘who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge’? You get similar traits in Russian fairytales, and I’m sure in other cultures whose fairytales I’m not familiar with. These repetitions and stock phrases made the stories ritualised and communal – everyone knew some of the lines and could therefore join in. When they were collected and written down, starting with Giovanni Francesco Straparola in 1550, that pinned such features into a set shape which endured down the centuries.

The sanitization that started with the Grimms has given us a false idea of fairytales as morality tales. Reading the originals, if they were morality tales it was for a very different set of morals. They often have very cruel endings, punishing the innocent or inflicting horrifically excessive fates for minor transgressions. This is a legacy of their medieval origins, and there’s a theory that they’re actually echoes of stories about historical people and events. The alternative theory is that they’re the origin of genre fiction, asking the ‘what if’ questions like ‘what happens if you got rid of Death?’ (Godfather Death).

We can tap into the near-universal understanding of the fairytale structure to retell stories that audiences instantly find easy to relate to. Despite considerable reinterpretations and evolutions of the stories, we still recognise the architecture. This means the tropes can be subverted to fit our changed social morals. Beauty and the Beast, for example, becomes Shrek and allows the princess to cast aside the shackles of expected femininity to be herself. The originals remain a window into their contemporary environment, but are no longer fit for purpose as fables.

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Is the Beast represented by Shrek or Farquaad?

Next week: The city in SFF

Nine Worlds: Women Write About War

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A talk about the depictions of warfare in SFF books written by women in the 21st century.
Presenter: Marina Berlin

I actually went to this after misreading the blurb and thinking it was about women’s accounts of war from inside the conflict – my bad. But Berlin has some really interesting points to make about the way women depict war, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her conclusions. She did make the important disclaimer that everything which follows is only applicable to Western story traditions. Doing some research into how it compares to non-Western traditions would be a fascinating project.

Tropes of Writing War

There are some common themes to what happens to people fighting in a war, in stories:

MEN WOMEN
Form close bonds of brotherhood through shared experiences Typically lone warriors – they’re usually depicted as being unusual/unique, locked out of the standard military unit, which isolates them
Boys become men by facing up to responsibilities Secondary roles – they aren’t the heroes so minimal character growth
Men become broken – loss of innocence, and an inability to function properly in society post-war Victims of violence – loss of innocence through violation, not observed trauma

These are all the tropes we expect because it’s how the classics portray them – classics primarily written by men. War is often depicted as being primarily a story about men, with women as peripheral characters to the manly violence going on.

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I image-searched ‘war’. There were more pictures of horses than women, and none of women fighting, even in modern photos or computer game stills.

War as a Female Opportunity

Berlin used two primary texts to illustrate her argument: Temeraire by Naomi Novik (which I’ve read) and God’s War by Kameron Hurley (which I haven’t).

In Temeraire, the British Aerial Corps fighting in the Napoleonic War has a lot of female officers because the largest and most important dragons flatly refuse to be commanded by men. Women are therefore drafted, and operating in company amongst a military unit. Not only is the war not being used to lock them out, it’s the reason women are being given equal responsibility as a result of it. The war creates a story of equality.

In God’s War, a young man emigrates from one side of a conflict to the other as a refugee. He moves into a strongly matriarchal society which expects all men aged 16-45 to be serving on the front line whilst the women run the country. The hero therefore finds himself marginalized and vulnerable – something made particularly clear in a scene when he’s sitting in a train carriage on his own and the two female train guards start aggressively flirting with him. When his female travelling companion returns, the guards immediately apologize to her for unwittingly trespassing on her turf. She doesn’t think twice about it – he is badly shaken. Sounds familiar, huh? Hurley uses war as an excuse to explore everyday effects of a gender-led society, but with the power dynamics flipped.

War is essentially a story about a society in extremis. Berlin argued that female writers  choose different aspects of that social conflict to explore than the traditional male-focused stories. I felt Berlin was over-generalising here, actually. Novik and Hurley present really interesting social dynamics, no question, but there’s plenty of female writers that don’t take the road less travelled and plenty of male writers that do. The important point is that you can tell stories about war that focus on any kind of narrative and any kind of character – don’t pick the lazy option.

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Taken from the Rejected Princess’ blog, which lists a ton of historical female fighters

Female Fighters in Real Life

Historically, there’s been a tendency across most cultures to repress the reports – and sometimes even the existence – of female units in war. The first instinct for any society has been to try and restore ‘normality’, as defined by its pre-war state, which means pushing women back into their previous roles. Women then have to deal with PTSD alone, whilst having it minimized or ignored, whilst trying to reintegrate into a society that doesn’t recognise how they have changed.

This has led to a seriously inaccurate belief in the historical role of women in war. There’s a fantastic essay by Kameron Hurley called We Have Always Fought, which looks at the role of women in stories vs what actually happened. It’s a fascinating essay, as well as being very engagingly written (and contains llamas) – I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go, read it now. I’ll wait.

Done? See how important it is to really look? The power of stories over reality is immense and we as writers – like Spiderman – have a responsibility. And, as Hurley says, someone has to move first. It’s started to come up in multiple media recently. There’s been a flurry of interest around things like the Russian Night Witches (who are all of the awesome), and that’s fantastic. But it needs to keep going until it becomes the norm in our stories. Don’t be lazy. The llamas will thank you.

Women in war

We can put flowers in our hair and be badasses simultaneously – these things aren’t mutually exclusive

Next week: building realistic characters

The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

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Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

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Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

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This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

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Nine Worlds: Non-Binary Gender in Myth & Fiction

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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.

Nine Worlds: How to Think About Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.

Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University

I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.

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The Macrotext of Historical Fiction

The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.

History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.

There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.

Remembering History

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Definitely more fiction than history

Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.

We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.

Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.

Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.

Retelling History

You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads.   ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.

Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.

Nine Worlds: The Chinese Don’t Do Sci-Fi?

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China and Chinese aesthetics have been borrowed by the West as a sci-fi setting and McGuffin for years. Native Chinese science fiction, however, has remained relatively unregarded until very recently. Yet it has existed for over a century. This talk is a history of Chinese sci-fi and specualtive fiction from the turn of the twentieth century through to the present. Discover the influences of China’s unique history and culture on key themes and voices, from its first dawning to contemporary works.

Xueting Christine Ni

Disclaimer: I know basically nothing about Chinese history, literary, politics or culture. I know a tiny bit about the mythology, and I do mean tiny. If I make any mistakes in this blog, I sincerely apologise. Everything Xueting said was fascinating and my note-taking couldn’t always keep up.

Another World

Chinese fantasy is mostly set in the romanticised past of Chinese history, rather than creating new fantasy worlds.

The Chinese culture has been borrowed from extensively by the West to create futuristic otherworldly cultures. It’s “an alien culture without stepping onto a rocket”. This goes both ways – medieval Britain in classical Chinese 20th century literature is used in a similar manner.

The Politics of Sci-Fi

kehuan

Kehuan Shijie, “SF World” – a Chinese SF magazine

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a massive flair in SF writing, as the government pushed a ‘save the country with science’ agenda. This was repeated in the 1980s, when the country was forward-thinking and had stable development. One of the masters of the genre was a chemistry graduate – “science was important“.

In between these two periods, the country was too unstable to have much luxury for SF, due to war, invasion, and the change to a republic. As a result, a lot of SF writing has strong social and political commentary, both local and global. In China, the level of censorship was often a strong indicator of how much good work was (is?) being produced.

The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on SF plots. The genre was used as a way to reclaim history and allow the readership to come to terms with the past. War and revolution brutally severed the link between the ancient and modern periods of Chinese history, and SF tries to form a bridge between the two distinct cultures.

The early tradition of SF set stories in the wider world, either to avoid insulting the homeland directly or as a reflection of China as a bit-player in global politics. Modern SF is far more likely to be set in China itself, suggesting either less concern about the consequences of critique, a new confidence in China as a dominant player on the world stage, or a more immediate preoccupation with matters at home.

The 80s single-child generation is now nearing their thirties, and this is having a massive impact on both modern Chinese culture and SF themes. That generation is currently having to care for their parents and grandparents without any siblings to share the burden. At the same time, the strong sense of community that flourished in a state-owned culture has been nearly obliterated in the current privatised, corporate culture.

Similarly, many graduates are currently unemployed. There is increasing social stratification, leading to a huge gulf in living standards (particularly in cities, where slums are growing rapidly). The overpopulation crisis has led to jobs, schools and living space all under pressure. This is reflected in the current trend of ‘Angry Young Man’ stories (see below).

Themes and Characters

Super-Robot-Girl-2015-1

Super Robot Girl, a 2015 film

Near future tech is very popular, especially virtual reality and robotics. AS more factories and restaurants employ robots in reality, the Chinese accept them as a fact of life. SF stories often explore the positive aspects of this, rather than Asmiov’s more doomsday approach. Bio-engineering is also popular. Altering bodies to fit ideals or achieve immortality has been a constant throughout Chinese history. There is a cult of conformity, adjusting looks and lifestyles in order to fit pereived ideals, and near-future science can enable this desire.

Not much is said about characters that break the rules and are removed. The reader is left to draw assumptions, based on history and cultural expectations. This speaks volumes.

The ‘Angry Young Man’ is a popular modern archetype, railing against the system with a certain sense of naivety. This character type is generally written by post-80s writers, who play heavily on themes of consumerist greed, tech advancement and commercialism leading to near-future dystopia. These anti-heroes tend to act as a lens of ‘realism’ for readers, rather than doing anything to change the situation. They are commentators, not actors.

The past is idolised, and almost portrayed as otherworldly. This tension between old desires and history, and new innovation is very obvious in modern SF. There’s still a desire for mysticism in the age of robots.

Lost in Translation

So why hasn’t Chinese SF been translated into English? One reason is that there’s frequently a direct and strong critique of Western politics, which Western readers might well find unpalatable. The USA in particular is a big target for Chinese dystopian futures, which isn’t especially popular with the Americans.

Western readers also generally lack a strong understanding of the history and culture which informs Chinese SF plots and characters. That makes it harder to engage with the stories at the right level.

If you’re interested in trying some, however, the following three authors were recommended as good starting points: Lagrange Graveyard by Wang Jinkang, The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan, and A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia.

Next week: using foreign languages in genre fiction.