New Worlds: Painting

I’m not sure why, but it turns out my last two posts about new Patreon essays going up failed to post as scheduled. My apologies for not noticing that! I’ll keep an eye on it this week and manually push it if I have to.

Anyway, this month we’re talking about art! Starting with a discussion of the lines along which we declare things to be Art vs. Not Art, then continuing on to sculpture and, as of this week, painting — less the specifics of style and technique, more the uses to which we put such things. Comment over there (including on the older posts)!

(Edit: yeah, something’s wrong with WP, as this post also missed going live as scheduled. I’ll look into fixing that.)

Smart people saying smart things (II)

This interview is fascinating to me because I know basically nothing about cinematography, except insofar as it’s related to photography. So I love it when somebody gets down into the nitty-gritty details about how decisions regarding lenses and focus contribute to inequality, e.g. the fact that women on average speak about 25% of the time in a film + cinematographic technique that puts only the speaker in a shot in focus = not only are the women on screen silent more often than not, but they’re probably blurry as well. Backlighting, specific camera angles — she compares it all to the practice of airbrushing magazine covers, only there isn’t the same degree of public awareness that this stuff is being used to erase women’s flaws and present a constantly-idealized image. Plus lots of interesting discussion on how the relationship between a director and a director of photography differs between movies and TV, male directors and the YA film genre, etc.

On the deep and poisonous stream of anti-Semitism that runs through far too much of white evangelical Christianity. Key quote:

And it doesn’t really matter which “theory” a conspiracist starts with — Moon-landing hoaxers, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, young-earthers, chemtrails, fluoridation, Planned Parenthood, Antichrist OWG, blue helmets, black helicopters, whatever — the belief that the Key to Everything is “the startling news that the media isn’t reporting!” always leads, ultimately, to anti-Semitism.

This got me reflecting on my own childhood. My elementary school had a large Jewish contingent; I’m not sure how many, but my mother estimates somewhere between a quarter and a third of my class. It got watered down as we fed into junior high and high school, joining other elementary school catchment areas, but overall, they were almost certainly the largest minority in my area. Large enough that Jewish kids didn’t stand out as unusual to me — at least, not until those two years where they were all going through their Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations and I learned that being Jewish meant you got a special birthday party. (I probably went to more parties in junior high than any other period of my life.)

But at the same time, we were also in the neighborhood of this church. (In opening that page, I note that a section which used to detail a sexual abuse scandal within the church’s leadership has been removed. A scandal which, for all I know, could have involved kids in my class or my brother’s — the timing was right.) I don’t know how much of that anti-Semitic ideology is present there, or was thirty years ago. But it makes me wonder how much, despite the large presence and general acceptance of Jewish families in our neighborhood, there were still incidents that happened out of my sight or flew over my head. I know the guy I went to prom with gave me the first Left Behind novel to read; I didn’t get more than about ten pages into it because the writing was so execrable, but later I learned that boy howdy are those books anti-Semitic. And there were enough Baptist and evangelical Christians around that I have to imagine some of that was an issue in my community.

Short of randomly calling up my Jewish friends from sixth grade and asking them whether they got shit from our fellow students, I’ll never know. But it’s a sobering thing to consider.

By comparison, this is a relief

All day I’ve been imagining the worst for Notre Dame: a gutted shell, structural collapse, destruction that would take decades to repair.

It isn’t as bad as I feared.

It’s still bad. I saw an aerial photo that showed the entire roof of the cathedral glowing in the night like a cross-shaped pit to hell, which primed me to expect the worst. But things that are good:

There have been no fatalities.

The statues on the spire were removed four days ago because of the renovations.

The clergy, military, and Louvre staff were prompt and organized in evacuating other precious items from the cathedral.

The towers were saved.

This tweet shows the interior; if you look at the photo full size, you can see a fair bit of detail. There’s water on the floor, but only one small portion of the ceiling collapsed, and the stonework throughout much of the nave looks basically untouched to me — not scorched or covered in soot, not damaged, not destroyed.

The superstructure is badly hit, I’m sure, and it’s likely that has caused or will cause problems which aren’t immediately visible. Repairs will still take a long time, and who knows how many days will pass before they can allow visitors again. But after a day of imagining things so much worse than this, it’s a relief to know I overshot — that, though wounded, Notre Dame is still standing.

Even now, this can happen

The burning of Notre Dame is breaking my heart.

I’ve read a lot of history. I could fill a whole post with nothing but a list of beautiful, significant buildings lost to fire. It’s happened before, many times, for thousands of years, all around the world. But it’s easy to fall into thinking that it can’t happen now. That sure, ordinary buildings may burn, because we can’t protect everything perfectly — but surely, with all our technology, we can keep the important places safe. The ones that matter not just to a few people, or a few hundred, or a few thousand, but millions upon millions.

But we can’t. Disasters still happen. We are not the unchallenged masters of our physical environment; things can still go wrong.

This one hits particularly hard for two reasons. One is that I was just there: when my husband and I visited Paris in 2013 the towers were closed for repairs, but after Imaginales last May I spent a few days there and got to climb up to meet the gargoyles. I haven’t been able to make myself look at many pictures, much less video, but even a glance was enough to give me that punch of I stood there. Right where it’s burning — I was there.

The other is more distant in some ways, but even closer in others. In 1666 the Great Fire of London burned, among other things, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Like Notre Dame, it was under repair at the time; the scaffolding surrounding it gave the spreading fire an easy foothold. That was 450 years ago, of course — but I researched it for In Ashes Lie, and then I wrote about it, immersing myself in that moment of terrible destruction. When I heard the spire of Notre Dame had collapsed . . . the spire of St. Paul’s had been gone for a century, thanks to a lightning strike, but the tower was still there when the Great Fire began. When it fell, it broke through the floor into a subterranean chapel where the booksellers of London had stored their wares for safekeeping. That image lives in my mind still. Notre Dame hits right where it already hurts, where a part of me has been grieving for a building I never saw.

I can’t follow the news right now. I’ll look when it’s over, when we know exactly how bad the damage is. I presume the cathedral will be rebuilt — and I know, because I read history, that this is part of how history works. That our world is a palimpsest, things erased and rewritten and revised and layered atop one another. The St. Paul’s Cathedral that stands now in London isn’t the building that burned in 1666, but it contains some pieces of it, and the cathedrals that went before (more than one) are all part of the story of that place.

But knowing that scar tissue will eventually become part of the beauty doesn’t make it hurt any less right now.

Help found the Dream Foundry!

Some of you may have heard about the Dream Foundry, an organization that aims to provide support and encouragement for new professionals in science fiction and fantasy writing and art. I’m a part of the group, and our project just got rolling in the last year or so (you may have heard some of us talking about it at Worldcon in San Jose); now it’s running its very first Kickstarter! There’s a five-year-plan for getting the entire enterprise up and running, and the purpose of the Kickstarter is to fund the first year of weekly articles and a discussion series. If it meets that goal — which is only $2000, and since we’ve already got $1766, the odds look good — then further funds will be used to extend that funding, recoup startup costs, expand our web presence, pay staff (all of whom are currently unpaid volunteers), and even provide the money to start up a contest for new writers and artists, with a substantial cash award and free workshop for finalists.

There’s an added twist here, which is that the Dream Foundry’s financial people have plans to apply for various grants and such — but in the perverse way of such things, it’s easier to get a grant if you can show a track record of other funding and results. So the more the Kickstarter can raise to get the Dream Foundry going, the better our odds become of keeping it going in the long run.

I got involved because my own career got started with an award and the monetary prize from that, and I’d love to see another such project aimed at people who are new to the field. The people behind the Dream Foundry are astonishingly well-organized, so I have every faith that with support, this can become not just a real thing but an amazing one. Back the Kickstarter now to help make that happen!

Another bullet dodged

I recently received a jury duty summons for today. And, once again, it passed without me actually having to report in.

This is kind of a relief for me. The summons in its initial form tells me to report at 8:30 in the morning to a location that, at that time of day, I’d want to allocate more than half an hour to drive to. I normally work until about 3 a.m.; getting up at 7:30 is distinctly difficult for me. It was a relief to check their website last night and discover I’d been placed on “callback status,” meaning I had to check again at 11:15 a.m. to see if they would need me after all — which it turned out they didn’t. And of course I’m happier not having to spend one or more days sitting around a courthouse instead of being at home.

But at the same time, I recognize that spending one or more days sitting around a courthouse is vastly less of a hardship for me than it is for many people. Yes, I’ll be operating on grotesquely little sleep (I’m not the kind of person who can just say “okay, I’m going to bed at 11 tonight!” and make that work), and yes, it’s annoying to uproot myself — but my work is flexible. I can take it with me to fill all the time spent waiting. And if I have to spend a day listening to a court case rather than writing, it isn’t the end of the world. I don’t wind up with a smaller paycheck at the end of the week, nor do I have to arrange for childcare.

So as much as I’m glad not to have to serve, I do feel bad that I dodged that bullet while other people didn’t — people for whom it’s a much bigger problem. There’s no system for saying “I’ll take someone else’s place,” of course, and if there were, I might find my sense of virtue sorely tested. 😛 But I genuinely do believe that jury service is an important civic duty, and I hope that when the day finally comes that I’ve got to be at the Hall of Justice bright and early in the morning, I won’t whine too much.

Smart people saying smart things

The blogger Slacktivist has a periodic series of posts he titles “Smart people saying smart things,” where he links to and quotes from a handful of solid pieces by other writers. I’ve happened across several great posts recently, so I’m going to steal his approach and modify it a bit here.

A really good discussion of how things change when you got published, and how to bear in mind that meeting you may be a really big deal for a reader of yours — yes, even if you don’t think of yourself as being all that famous. If they love your work, they love your work, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t sold as much as Author A or won as many awards as Novelist N. And while trying to be extraordinary for them may be daunting, you don’t have to be; simply meeting you is out of the ordinary. All you have to do is be a good kind of out of the ordinary — i.e., remember that this may mean more to them than it does to you, and don’t be a jackass. Also, if somebody’s a fan of your work, respect that; don’t grind down their joy by grinding yourself down in front of them. They may love a short story you’re embarrassed by. They may praise the exact thing you wish you could revise out of your last novel. That’s okay. Accept their delight as the gift it is.

I also want to call out one specific thing Mary Robinette said, about taking advantage of people. We see this cropping up a lot in allegations of sexual harassment: some guys are knowingly and maliciously using their social power to get what they want, but others are the equivalent of that guy with the enormous backpack who turns around without first checking to make sure there’s clearance for it. They don’t realize the pressure they’re applying simply by opening their mouths — and because they don’t realize it, they may apply it harmfully. We’re social monkeys; we like to do favors for the shiny monkeys, because then some of their shine rubs off on us. If you’re a published author and you ask a fan to do something for you, pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t exploit their goodwill. Don’t ask them to do things that will be burdensome, or if you do, make sure you compensate them fairly. Always thank them.

A potted history of the different ways internet culture has dealt with trolls across its brief history, and why it keeps on burning us out. What she says about the internet changing so fast — I honestly hadn’t even heard the term “cancel” used in that context yet, because I am out on the very edge of the social media pond, and those ripples hadn’t yet reached me. But this lays out very clearly how we haven’t yet figured out a good way of dealing with social interaction online, and the effects that’s having on other parts of our lives, including the way we interact with narrative media. I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope one exists, and that we find it sooner rather than later. Because the anthropologist in my looks at what we’ve got and wonders how long we’re going to lurch along in a car that’s on fire before we either fix it or decide as a society that getting where we’re going faster isn’t worth the third-degree burns we suffer along the way.

Palmer means stoicism in the specific philosophical sense, not a general “grit your teeth and bear it” approach. I don’t know much about philosophy, so the majority of her post was news to me, and very interesting — tangentially the part about stoicism as a metaphysics, but more to the point, stoicism as ethics. She makes some good points about why it is well-suited to being the philosophy of those in power, and why even for the downtrodden it can be both a wonderful lifeline and a dangerous trap, encouraging us simply to accept the world the way it is, rather than striving to change it. And it also makes me think about writing fiction, and the unexamined assumptions that can be hard to get around in your worldbuilding . . . like the idea that we can change the world, not just in a localized sense, but a general progress one. Humans didn’t always have that idea, and it’s easy to forget that.

What happens when the “Tiffany problem” isn’t about small things like plausible medieval women’s names but rather the lived experience of people around you. I like her point about physical intuition, and how reading broadly can help us build up the kind of instinctive understanding that helps us process what is and is not likely to be true in other people’s lives. It’s an angle on the subject of empathy I haven’t seen before, and reminds me of a thing I’m still flailing at in the New Worlds Patreon, which is how to explain the instinctive feeling I have that some kinds of worldbuilding hang together plausibly and others don’t. Fundamentally, the answer is that I’ve read a lot about a lot of different cultures, so I have that intuition about the ways they work; I’m not sure it’s possible to boil that intuition down to a checklist of questions to ask, without doing the reading first.

(Also, this essay gives me some additional vocabulary to talk about what skills I still lack in the kitchen, so hey, bonus.)

Books read, March 2019

After February’s enormous binge, I read much less in March.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Cory Pietsch. You pretty much can’t be a gamer these days without having at least heard of The Adventure Zone, but I have no good space in my life for listening to podcasts. An episode here and there, sure, but not hundreds of them. So friends recommended I try the graphic novels they’ve started putting out, which also have the benefit of condensing the story — I know from my days studying RPGs in grad school just how diffuse and wandering things can be during actual play. I wasn’t impressed by the first half of this volume, which felt more or less like a typical D&D adventuring party (all male, though one of them is gay) doing the adventuring thing and failing to take anything seriously. It picked up more in the second half, though, and got interesting right at the end, when the characters get introduced to what looks like the real plot. (And, encouragingly, the improvement in the story coincides with female characters showing up.) I’m definitely willing to give the second volume a shot, as I understand the challenge of getting an episodic story moving properly in its first installment — especially one based on the hot mess that is most RPG narratives.

The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson. Read for review with the New York Journal of Books. I loved the setting of this one — at the tail end of the Reconquista, from the perspective of characters in the last Muslim state in Spain just as it falls to Ferdinand and Isabella — and the handling of religion, with multiple levels of piety from characters on both sides of that conflict and an antagonist who genuinely believes that it’s more compassionate to torture someone into converting than to let them burn in hell. The plot didn’t work as well for me, though. The central conceit of magical maps wound up being much less central than the cover copy led me to expect, and the whole business with the Bird King’s island felt to me like the kind of thing where either the elliptical approach is going to click for you and be amazing, or it’s going to fail to cohere much at all. For me it was the latter, especially when a threat reared up out of nowhere essentially saying “Remember me, from two hundred pages ago?” To which my answer was, “not really.” Not a bad book overall, but it didn’t hang together the way I was hoping.

Unraveling, Karen Lord. Also read for review with the New York Journal of Books. Speaking of things that are weird and elliptical . . . but in this case it worked for me. Several of the characters are not human (or at least mostly not) and don’t interact with time the way we do; much of the plot takes place in what amounts to a series of dreams or visions of what might happen. It’s a sequel to Redemption in Indigo, which I didn’t realize until after I was on a plane to Florida with Unraveling but not Redemption in Indigo in my bag; based on that, I can say that Unraveling works even without knowledge of the prior book, though it might read less weirdly with. And now I should go get Redemption in Indigo off my shelf, where it’s been sitting for far too long, waiting for me to read it.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone: Stories, Kat Howard. Freebie book at ICFA, read on the plane home. As the title suggests, a large percentage of these stories riff off folklore in some fashion, and specifically off northern European folklore. The other running theme in them is Women Done Wrong By Men, which will probably speak deeply to some readers, but I am not one of them. The stories that wandered in a more New Weird/surrealist direction often didn’t click for me, but on the other hand I really enjoyed “Once, Future” (novelette at least, quite possibly novella-length), with a group of college students whose class assignment causes them to begin incarnating Arthurian legend, and also “The Calendar of Saints,” set in an alternate history where figures like Galileo are saints of the church, and following a female duelist who winds up at the center of a challenge to the holy Laws of Science.

Double release day!

I’m having nostalgic memories of when my first novel was released, thirteen years ago . . . on April Fool’s Day. (Yes, I spent rather a lot of time persuading myself that no, my editor wasn’t going to say “haha, fooled you!” and then the book wouldn’t come out.) This year I’m managing to dodge that day — which is good, because I have not one but two things out!

The first is New Worlds, Year Two: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuuilding, which you can get at Book View Cafe — i.e. direct from the publisher, and it’s a little bittersweet, because Vonda beta-read this for me — or Amazon US or UK, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, iTunes, Kobo, and Indigo. And if that’s not enough anthropological and worldbuilding goodness for you, there’s always New Worlds, Year One: A Writer’s Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding, the collection from the first year of the New Worlds Patreon.

The second thing out today is my short story “Vīs Dēlendī” at Uncanny Magazine. Their Kickstarter backers got this a while ago, and half of the contents went live earlier, but as of today the entire issue is available for free online: fiction, poetry, articles, and interviews. One (1) Internet Cookie to anyone who can identify the main folksong that inspired this story; fifty (50) Internet Cookies to anybody who can identify the other folksong that contributed to it, without which this refused to cohere into an actual story. (Offer null and void after the podcast interview with me goes live, wherein I talk about both songs.)

No joke! Go forth and enjoy!

RIP Vonda N. McIntyre

I saw this news several hours ago, but didn’t want it to come across as a terrible attempt at an April Fool’s joke. Vonda N. McIntyre, one of the founding members of Book View Cafe, has passed away. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months ago. The news of her illness rocked everyone at BVC; Vonda was a bedrock of our organization, and we’re still figuring out how many of us it will take to fill the gap she leaves behind.

I never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, but she was the beta-reader for my New Worlds collections — a wonderful mix of encouragement and suggestions. And, of course, she was an amazing writer; tributes to her work are popping up all over the place. We will all miss her greatly.