In Which Our Heroine Is Nostalgic, And Also Mean And Horrible

12 April 2003

As I said, my back was dealing me fits yesterday. I can't say it's doing dances of joy today, but it's somewhat better. Anyway, though, I wanted to stay away from the computer and do things with which I could change position. So I wrote in my journal a fair bit, and I did random household stuff and read a lot. The computer work I did was specific to a new short story. Finally, a new short story in the midst of all this novelly goodness! But it's a story to send to a theme issue, so don't get too excited.

Actually, I am a little excited, because I get to use a title that's been floating around my head since 1997: "Wishing on Airplanes." And, since I am no longer just-turning-19, I can use it without the story being a tragedy about how humanity has squandered its etc. etc. etc. There are many good things about not being me-just-turning-19 any more. (Your just-turning-19 mileage may vary.) I picked out a Mark that year, and also a few nice dresses, but that good taste didn't extend very far into my fiction. But I wrote obsessively in my journal and sowed a lot of seeds for future work, so it worked out all right.

I remember the night I came up with that title, even. Gene Shoemaker had just died, and I was spending the summer doing astrophysics at an NSF-REU in Toledo, Ohio. I was sitting in a tiny computer room with a frequently broken tape drive and a list of spectrum lines to match to calibrate the spectra my advisor had taken, and one of the grad students came in with the news. He was more upset than I was, but everyone in the building was a little shaken. That night, we went up on the roof, and Don brought his guitar up and played, mostly from memory, since the wind up there was just strong enough to blow his music around. We danced and sang and drank plum wine from red plastic cups and looked through the telescopes. The Galilean moons were clear and beautiful, lined up as neatly as you could care to ask for. And we looked up a lot without the telescopes and wished on stars, and it reminded me of being a little girl in the car on the way to Grandma's, and the frustration of wishing on something that then blinked and moved and turned out to be an airplane. So I went and dug out my journal, which was wedged under Don's guitar case, since it was only an old lab notebook and could have blown away as easily as his music. I used Don's little music light to see to write the title and (wrong) idea in with my then-ubiquitous black Pilot ballpoint.

It's probably not the best title I'll ever use -- although I'm not so good at titles in the first place. But I'm glad that I have a story that fits it, after this long, and that it's a much worthier story than I would have written at the time. Even then, with the plum wine and the Galilean moons, I knew that astronomy was not the thing for me. But it came closer that night than any other night in my life, except maybe the Fourth of July that year.

So. Working on that rather than on the Not The Moose helped me to stop within a reasonable word count and not kill my back further, which was necessary. Timprov made spinach enchiladas with his fruit molé sauce (with plantains and plums and peaches and apricots, among other things), and I read and read. (A couple of the books were recommended by you-all, and I've talked about them a bit on that page, too.)

Jenn Crowell's Letting the Body Lead was a good recommendation, but I didn't think much of it as a book. The main character is supposed to be an overachieving save-the-world type, but I didn't think much of either her overachievements or her attempts to save the world. And the premise was that it had all gotten to be too much for her and she'd let her thesis eat her life and needed to run away to Iceland for a sense of perspective. But I looked at it and went, "She's supposed to be extraoradinary and swamped and all she's dealing with is that? What a wuss!" I know I'm harsh, but...wuss. Total wuss. And she took herself entirely too seriously and didn't seem to have learned not to by the end of the book. Nor did she seem to have learned to be considerate of other people or anything else. And for most of the book, Iceland was wasted as a setting. Ah well. The premise and setting mean that I would want to know about this book and read it no matter what.

There were a few good lines about feeling distanced by other people's praise, but...mostly I just didn't buy that the main character was worth the praise in the first place. So you graduate from high school a year early and go to college at just-17. So did I. What do you want, a balloon? Ohhhh, what an overachieeeeever, mehhhhhh. And she actually went to grad school and wrote a thesis that, as far as I could see, was going to be totally lame (despite the author's repeated assurances that it was great)? How brilliant do you have to be to write a lame thesis by the age of 25? I think a lot of us could pull off a lame thesis, no hobbies, and no functional human relationships by 25. I just don't think that's anything to call an achievement, much less an overachievement.

Yeah, okay, so I'm a mean and horrible person.

The next thing I read was Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, which I found light and fluffy and fast, possibly because I have a pretty high comfort level with graph theory and quantum mechanics. He had the conceit that in the future, humans will only grow genitals when they're attracted to someone and want to use them. Names, providing him with a loophole, come with a masculine or feminine pronoun the way that common nouns do in languages like French -- but that doesn't mean anything about genitals any more than we actually mean that la table possesses ovaries. Conveniently, the main character, referred to as male, was attracted to two people referred to as female, so nobody actually had to deal with the idea of "him" being attracted to another "he." I didn't actually find that the characters were particularly masculine or feminine, which would have been a bigger achievement if they'd seemed to have any other particular attributes, other than moving along the premise/plot. It would be more of an achievement to have convincing, rich gender-neutral characters than to have gender-neutral plot devices.

Mean, horrible person, yes, all right.

And then (see why I go to the library a lot?) I read Philip Pullman's The Tiger in the Well. And once again I wanted to shriek at Pullman for telling us that C.S. Lewis is preachy. C.S. Lewis is preachy? In my friend Michael's voice, "Helloooo, Mr. Pot? Uh, this is the Kettle...." This plot relied heavily on the unkindness of strangers, which always bothers me: I don't much believe in institutions, but I also don't believe that random people are just looking to be cruel to the poor, wholly innocent, set-upon hero/heroine. And I found the socialist conversion of Sally Lockhart totally rigged and unconvincing. Mercifully, her little "this is my philosophy now!" speech was much shorter than John Galt's in Atlas Shrugged, but no less obtrusive or eye-rollingly annoying. It's too bad that Pullman evidently has no self-awareness: he recognizes that it's bad for books to get overly preachy, at least enough to criticize it in others, and he can tell a story with interesting elements. He just doesn't recognize when the one is getting in the way of the other in his own work.

Mean, horrible, yes yes.

So then I read Monica Hughes' Invitation to the Game -- for those of you who are shaking your heads at the amount I read yesterday, let me point out that I only did around 1000 words of actual prose work of my own, and also these last two are YAs. Anyway. Karina said that she'd loved Invitation to the Game when she was younger but less on a reread, and I can see why on both counts. As YA wish-fulfillment goes, it's got a lot of great appealing points: a situation with essentially no adult supervision, where you get to explore a very cool new place and set things up the way you want to, with several of your very best friends, who are also good friends with each other. The problem is that the way the cool new thing is handled makes no sense, nor does the old way, for that matter. I think Hughes could have gotten the aspects of the society she wanted and still had it make sense if she'd just sat down and thought about it for a few minutes. I also think that the way the new thing, The Game, is handled, is just plain stupid. Starry-eyed primitivism mixed with an SCA-style view of untechnological situations. Fabulous. Just -- no.

Lest you think I'm utterly mean and horrible about everything, I started Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint for the first time and am enjoying it a good deal. So there's that.

But back to the wish-fulfillment...I think we have a fine line to walk here, as writers. Part of the fun of designing a world can be the "Wow, I want to go there!" factor. That doesn't mean that one's setting needs to be idyllic or perfect, just that there's a definite appeal to some worlds and even some kinds of worlds. My other place series, for example, has some wish-fulfillment to it just by its nature: it's a world where the kids can do magic, and they really matter -- their actions make a huge difference. Their parents can't go and have no way of controlling what the kids do there. They have good friends who go there, too. Exciting things happen to them or because of them. I've had some of that with The World Builders, too: pretty much everyone I talked to about the premise said, "Cool! I want to do that!" Even the pseudo-Viking setting of Dwarf's Blood Mead occasionally gets the "I wanna go there!" reaction. But it's tempting to make things too easy on the characters in a YA with heavy wish-fulfillment component -- no interpersonal conflicts, no dark side to the setting. We can't do that. Makes it a worse book and eventually a disappointment. And I think it's better wish fulfillment to let readers identify with a character who is capable and slays the dragon, literally or metaphorically, than to give them only characters who have no dragons to slay.

Adult wish-fulfillment has a line to walk, too, but it's much subtler, I think, because a lot of adults are less up-front about their wishes in the first place.

It's strange to talk to my parents about a teenaged friend of the family and hear that she wants to be living my life. It shouldn't be strange -- people look up to you from the time you start baby-sitting, if not before -- but it is anyway. And I don't think this girl wants exactly my life. She just wants all the books (to read and to write and to have around the house just in case). Which seems like it's pretty doable, I would think.

You know what feels like home? Coming up on Minicon and knowing I won't be going. I had that feeling so many times in college that it's a normal, homely sort of feeling. I came upon some reference to it today and thought, oh yeah, the con I never get to go to. I don't get to go to it again this year. Go figure.

Next year, though...still possibly not. We'll see.

Anyway, despite the length of this entry, I'm going to try to stay away from the computer again today, mostly. We'll see. I'm going to try to focus on finishing "Wishing on Airplanes," and then maybe I won't get sucked into working on the Not The Moose Book all day. There's all kinds of hockey on -- the Goofers are playing for the championships, which is nifty -- but I'm not very good at watching things on TV, so I'm not sure how much that'll keep me away from the computer. But the back is not so great. As usual, we'll see.

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