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Singing to time travelers

So I kind of take for granted that everybody has little weird games their brains will go on auto-pilot and play if they’re standing in line at the post office without a book or whatever. I’ve talked about these before but not, I think, about this one. And then this morning one of my lj friends linked to this article about the most specific words in popular songs, decade by decade.

Frankly, I don’t think the article is very well done because it isn’t selecting for interesting words, so–for example, “you” is one of the words of the 1990s. But if you look at the line, songs from the 1990s have “you” in the title only marginally more than songs from the 1900s. Things like “Disco” and “Mamba” are interesting but not really surprising, so–I feel like a better methodology could have been found, basically.

But the weird little thing I do sometimes while waiting in line is called “singing to time travelers.” The premise is: how far back can any given song be taken and still be comprehensible to its audience without explanation? Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s “Cuz we’re Cousins” would seem by its sentiments to be pretty human-universal: young cousins sharing things and becoming friends. But one of the verses contains in a single couplet both XBox and DVDs, meaning that if you tried to time travel with it to even a decade before its 2009 release date, you’d have some explaining to do–even more so if you traveled earlier than the 1980s, where the more general concepts of a game console and a home method of playing recorded movies on a TV screen would be less familiar. On the other hand, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is on my list of darn near universal songs: as long as you’re in a settlement that understands that its landform is not the only landform, you’re good to go. (Different cultures might assume different things about the singers than the culture in which Denver wrote it, but that’s part of the fun.)

It’s kind of fun to notice which songs require which things. You think you’ve got a solid ballad concept for the ages, and then you notice that it leans on astronomical concepts like the moon having a generally-dark side. Or you get to thinking about what isn’t actually universal but feels that way from here: the existence of streets is a big one. Windows and mirrors–and the idea that everyone has windows, everyone has mirrors, not just rich people. Folk music seems like it should be a rich vein of songs for singing to time travelers, but in fact folk music often talks about very specific transportation technologies, specific ways of making a living with their own terminology and technology, etc. Also this can turn into a game of “which thing predated which other thing,” which is good nerdy fun. I’m particularly glad I shared this game with Mark and Tim so that we can be driving down the road and blurt out, “domestication of herd animals!” or “Christian era!” in the middle of a perfectly nice song that isn’t really about that. So I thought I’d share with the rest of you too.

Also I want you to be prepared. I would hate for you to be catapulted back to 825 with magical translation powers and yet nothing to sing.

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Minicon 50 schedule

I have my schedule for Minicon! If you’re not going to Minicon, you can also see me at Fourth Street, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing for Convergence, since some friends are having an event there I don’t want to miss, but I otherwise don’t go to Convergence. So probably just a little Convergence, basically. I have no plans for out of town conventions this year, although life is full of surprises. Anyway! Minicon schedule!

Thursday, April 2, 6:30 p.m.: The Lure of Ages Past. Bronze age mysticism, Edwardian pomp, Civil War relived – what draws us to historical fiction (realistic or alternate)? Which authors are we reading? What makes the past such an alluring playground for authors? Dana M. Baird, Aimee Kuzenski, Magenta Griffith, Marissa Lingen, Ozgur K. Sahin I have discovered a conflict with this panel and will not be able to do it. Argh. My own fault, not theirs, but: argh.

Saturday, April 4, 1:00 p.m.: Adventures in Collaboration. Many of our attending authors have co-authored narrative works with other writers. How did such collaborations come about? How do authors with distinct voices come together to create a cohesive tale? What affect [I believe they mean effect–mkl] (or benefit) does collaborating have for an author at the beginning of his/her career versus when it is well-developed? Adam Stemple, Ctein, Heidi Stemple, Jane Yolen, Jerry Stearns, Larry Niven, Marissa Lingen

Saturday, April 4, 3:30 p.m.: Marissa Lingen & Alec Austin reading [We didn’t provide a description because we won’t decide what to read until…um…let’s say about 3:31 on Saturday, April 4. We will read things written by us separately and/or together. We have options.]

Sunday, April 5, 2:30 p.m.: Middle Grade Optimism vs YA Dystopia Magical wonder abounds in middle grade lit but seems to disappear once stories make the jump to the next age bracket. [coughBULLSHITcough–mkl] Does pessimism go hand in hand with the advent of hormones? Is middle grade more than it appears?(from both reader and writer perspective) [APPEARS TO WHOM WHAT I DON’T EVEN Oooookay we will argue this ON the panel–mkl] Donna Munro, Adam Stemple, Alec Austin, Brandon Sanderson, Jane Yolen, Marissa Lingen

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Books read, early March

You can tell that I had a cold by the type of reading I’ve mostly been doing. I have a half-read volume of fairly dense political history on my desk, and…we’re just not going to get there until next fortnight. Just: some weeks, no.

Marie Brennan, Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent. Discussed elsewhere.

Hilary McKay, Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, Forever Rose, and Caddy’s World. All rereads. Oh how I love this series. Definitely comfort rereads. I like Sarah best. I don’t know why I might overidentify with the fierce character (with a good hat!) who can’t walk right and whose mother uses her prodigious organization to be kind to people and whose father fixes the water feature. That part will have to remain a mystery. But the bits that reliably make me laugh instead of smiling on the third go-round are almost all Sarah. I think that the prequel nature of Caddy’s World simultaneously saves it (it would be unbearably dark if we didn’t already know that Rose does not die as a newborn–and I really don’t think that counts as a spoiler since her name is in two of the titles) and makes it worse (Caddy’s friends really should have shown up in the earlier published/later chronological books). But it’s still a fun read, and I feel like there’s room for more interstitial additions if McKay is careful.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, and A Tangled Web. All rereads. One of the things that jumped out at me this time was how much there is stillbirth, infant death, and miscarriage in Montgomery–and how differently it’s treated than in a modern book. Anne’s own loss is part of the actual plot, a notable event–but there are places where there’ll be just a brief mention that this is something that happened to another character–and that it affected them strongly, just–this isn’t their story. You’re allowed to know about this sort of loss when it isn’t the main character’s. It reminded me of the people who want a “reason” for a character to be anything but an American white dude: being a person who has suffered that kind of loss is something that modern books seem to think needs a “reason,” in a way that these older books really don’t, they just acknowledge it as part of being human. There was also a moment in AoGG in which Anne reports that her beloved and respected teacher has told her that she should never put anything in her stories that couldn’t happen right there in Avonlea, and…given how much L.M. Montgomery wrote about imaginative girls in mundane settings, and given how the advice was framed, I seriously wonder whether this happened to her. And whether we were robbed of a Maritime Hope Mirrlees by it. (So I have a story to write with that.) Anyway, I still like these books and still find their anecdotal approach entertaining. A Tangled Web, I will note, ends with gratuitous racism on the very last page–product of its time blah blah, but still, it’s totally unnecessary, and if you’re not braced for it, it’s a poison pill in a puff of cotton candy.

Arthur C. Parker, Skunny Wundy: Seneca Indian Tales. This is a pretty old book. Parker was himself Seneca, but it’s an old enough book that it was explicitly addressed to young white male readers. It’s mostly animal tales, mostly the just-so kind of animal tales. Interesting both for the stories it tells and for the assumptions involved in telling them. I’d be interested in contrasting this with some Seneca stories that were aimed at an adult, female, and/or Seneca audience.

Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment and Interesting Times. When I heard the news of Terry Pratchett’s death, I wanted to reread something, but I didn’t feel up for rereading the ones that are most personally meaningful to me yet. (Soon.) So I picked up MR, which I recalled enjoying, and I enjoyed it again. If it was Sir Terry Pratchett’s Grand Statement on Gender, it would leave something to be desired, but it wasn’t, it was a light comic novel that did a few good gender-y things. Then I grabbed IT, which I didn’t remember at all. It’s not one of his best. There are some entertaining bits, but I am generally less enthusiastic about Rincewind than about most Pratchett characters, and also I feel he is much stronger when making his jokes about an “us” rather than about a “them.” (IT has both, but the pseudo-Chinese culture just didn’t really work for me, as a joke or as serious.) Well, with the number of books the man wrote, to have some of them be kind of forgettable is not a horrible thing. And there are so many wonderful rereads ahead of me.

Dana Simpson, Phoebe and Her Unicorn. I really need to learn that when people say, “This is the next Calvin & Hobbes!”, they mean, “I wish this was the next Calvin & Hobbes…oh God, I’m so lonely…COME BACK TO ME, BILL.” This was a moderately entertaining comic about a girl and her snotty unicorn best friend. It was fine but in no way had the range of C&H.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Seal of the Worm. Last in a very long series, and for the love of Pete do not start with this one; it will make no sense and be emotionally unsatisfying if you don’t have the rest of the series. I felt that in some ways Tchaikovsky’s strengths were also his weaknesses here: he kept introducing new antagonists, which is great but didn’t really wrap up some of the potential of the other groups he’d introduced at all. I did like the fate of the Wasp Empire, and for a ten-book series of this size, I suppose any more wrapping up might have felt tied with a bow. I’ll look forward to seeing what he decides to do next.

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Cultural translation, part 375

This is in response to a locked post a friend made about how hard it can be to talk about things when you’re doing badly, without minimizing or feeling like you’re whining. I wrote most of the post and then realized that people might think I was being subtle about myself instead of reacting to a friend. But: locked post, cannot link. Sorry.

Some years ago, a friend of mine lost her partner (also a friend of mine). In addition to his death–as if that wouldn’t have been enough–my friend also lost her voice for quite some time, and there was an incident with a falling piano, and…yeah. It was not a good scene for my friend. Everyone who knew her knew of the string of bad things, but those of us in town had more opportunity to actually spend time with her.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and I ran into some people I know by name but do not know well. They were friends with my friend. And when I mentioned her name, they immediately said, “Oh yes, how is [friend]?” And I said, very firmly, “She’s doing just great.” They reared back and stared at me as though I had grown a second head. Doing great?, they asked incredulously. I, in turn, stared at them as though they had grown additional heads and said, “I don’t know how much better anyone could expect her to do under the circumstances!” Well, no, they agreed. Under the circumstances. Really one could not. But we sort of looked at each other funny for the rest of the conversation.

And it is hard to find the balance between informing people of bad stuff that’s going on and feeling like you’re whining. It really is. But this is also complicated by the fact that friends and other people of goodwill can’t rely on coming from the same cultural perspective on this. Even when one is speaking on behalf of someone else and not worrying about whining–and Lord knows if anyone had earned a whine that fall it would have been my friend–what message is conveyed by what level of response is highly, highly culturally determined. I would have felt disloyal if I’d said something that, in retrospect, was more like they seemed to expect, more along the lines of, “Poor dear, with all she’s been through it’s a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other to get from bed to bathroom.” It was a wonder. But she was doing it, and I didn’t want to give the impression that she was not. They already knew the practical details–I knew this was not a situation where I was going to be called upon to say, “Oh, had you not heard the terrible news?”

And I think one of the major cultural obstacles to overcome in achieving actual communication is how much people are expected to state the emotionally obvious. Sometimes it’s a relief to turn to someone and say, “I’m really sad right now,” or, “This has been very stressful for me.” But sometimes it’s also a great relief not to have to. Sometimes it’s a very great relief for the person or people you’re with to think, “Hmm, gee, Friend’s partner died, maybe Friend is REALLY SAD, I’ll do something nice,” without having to spell out every moment: “Still sad. Yep, still devastated. Life still in chaos due to very sad thing, yep yep.”

Sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. But wow, is it another layer of difficult just when people don’t need more difficult. And it’s a thing to keep an eye out for a) when writing people from different cultures and b) in trying to be compassionate in, y’know, real life.

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I hate the second week of March.

Today I’m wearing the shirt I bought when my grandpa was dying.

There are drawbacks to having a very sticky memory, and this is one of them: Grandpa died six years ago, and I have never once worn this shirt without thinking of the circumstances of its purchase. It’s a lovely bottle green, it’s a fabulous color for me, the fabric is soft…but it is permanently the shirt that I bought when my grandpa was dying.

I sometimes think that after six years I should stop having this lurching vertiginous feeling every time we do something with my side of the family and I’m in charge of making the reservations or buying the tickets or whatever. Every time–every single time–I have a horrible moment of conviction that I have reserved (or bought or whatever) the wrong number. And my brain doesn’t forget at those times. It’s not that I have moments of thinking Grandpa is still alive. Because what I invariably think is, “Where’s Grandpa going to sit?” So the thing in my brain that lurches like that knows that it’s Grandpa missing. But it happens every time, and it’s not tied to a number. My brain knows that we are different numbers at different times. We’re just…always one less than we’re supposed to be, whether we’re four or five or six or seven or…I don’t know, it could get up to seven billion, I suppose, and it’s still seven billion but no seat reserved for Grandpa.

I hate the second week of March.

And it’s not just Grandpa; Gran died on the same day as he did. I have this sense of doom every March. It’s good to keep an eye on that sort of thing so that you don’t mistake it for actual knowledge, and I’ve had this same sense of doom last year and the year before and so on, with no actual doom attached. My dark forebodings should not be reinforced with confirmation bias. The people I love who are going through tough medical things are not any likelier to have a hard time because of my feelings about early March.

Still and all. I am always glad when we get through this bit.

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Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by Tor. For further disclosure, the author is a friend of mine.

This is the third in the series of fictional memoirs by the dragon naturalist Lady Isabella Trent. In this volume, Lady Trent’s young son Jake is old enough to accompany her on her travels, which adds a note of domestic logistics but neatly avoids the “child as constant source of idiotic trouble” plot that I so hate.

This series is set up to go very readily to new places and see new dragons there, and this volume–as one might expect from the title–is no exception. The main body of the action takes place in a Pacific Island analogue, but there are some other places along the way, and also there is a great deal of Victorian-analogue sea travel.

There is also more arc plot than it may seem to begin with, beyond just “Lady Trent would like to find out more stuff about dragons, and does,” which would in some ways be enough for me, but I do like arc plot as well. I think this would be a quite reasonable starting place for the series; while you’d ideally then go back and read the others, I think it would be perfectly comprehensible to just dive right in (…so to speak) to sea serpents, fire lizards, and other taxonomic goodness.

I do love taxonomy.

Please consider using our link to buy Voyage of the Basilisk from Amazon.

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Books read, late February

Philip Ball, Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler. This was fairly short and contained entertaining/appalling anecdotes as well as a pretty comprehensive idea of which physicists went which ways under the Nazi regime and why. Ball walked a very fine line very, very well: he didn’t overstate Nazi sympathies based on continued residence in Germany (even talking about why it could be hard for Germans of any religious/ethnic background to find places elsewhere in the world), but at the same time he was not really up for overstated nonsense about who was in danger and why. Good stuff.

Ellen Datlow, ed., The Doll Collection. Discussed elsewhere.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman, A Red Heart of Memories. Structurally weird but doing fantasy things I don’t really see elsewhere. I find Hoffman’s prose very readable but somehow manage to forget to get more of her stuff for large swaths of time and then binge.

Beverley Jackson, Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition. Despite the title, this will not be an erotic book for the vast majority of readers. (Some people would find the manual to their crockpot erotic. Never say never; the world is full of differences.) It’s a pictorial history of Chinese women’s foot-binding and the shoes that covered the bound feet. Jackson manages not to exoticize the historical binding of Chinese women’s feet while exoticizing literally everything else about the existence of Chinese people, which was quite, um, the accomplishment. (See what I didn’t do there?) The photos speak for themselves and are fascinating and horrifying. And splendid: the needlework put into these shoes is astonishing.

Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America. What a strange book. It ends with 1920, and I get why: because Prohibition is such a huge topic. Still, in 1920 the Progressive Movement had not really fallen, and Prohibition is a huge relevant topic. Also it barely mentioned the Tafts and skated past the longer-term effects of Roosevelt and Wilson. I was glad to see some more obscure figures covered, but…this is not going to be enough if you’re looking for a history of the Progressive Movement. It has interesting tidbits but huge incomprehensible gaps.

Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. The ancient Mediterranean is not one of my main things, but this seemed like a reasonably well-done history of a civilization not much covered except as The Opponent, so it was a good gap to fill in.

Andrew C. Nahm, Introduction to Korean History and Culture. It fascinates me how the various people I’ve read trying to write a history of Korea focus so differently. It’s fun to watch. Anyway, this one–like pretty much everything else I’ve read–spends half its time on the twentieth century, which is frustrating for someone whose main interest is three to five centuries earlier. Still good stuff, though; if you’re going to start reading about Korean history, this is as good a place as any and much better than some.

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Does what it says on the tin…if you assume that only white women worked in turn-of-the-century New York. Which: hahaha no. Or if you assume that non-white women had the same access and interest in leisure activities in that era, which, seriously, come on, can anybody say rise of jazz? But it was really solid on white ethnicity and religious variability, and there’s good detail here for those who want more texture in a heroine of this era (or even a hero). Just…the dimension that was missing was a bit glaring to me.

Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell. So…back in the day my college friends and I discovered Connie Willis books. And we tore through them and raved over them and loved them. And then I picked up the collaborations between her and Cynthia Felice. And fie! no! how horrible they were! And we gnashed our teeth and muttered dire imprecations about Cynthia Felice for ruuuuuining our Connie Willis books. But then! I graduated, and I went to a convention where Connie Willis was the GoH, and she was on panels talking about how the collaboration had worked. And it turned out that every single thing that I liked in those books was Cynthia Felice, and every single thing that I thought was horrible was Connie Willis. So! While I know Jennifer Graham somewhat, I don’t know what balance of ideas in this book was hers and what was Rob Thomas’s. (For those of you who are not Marshmallows, Thomas is the original creator of the series.) But! Given the amount of control a co-writer of tie-in novels has compared to the creator of the series, I strongly suspect that the scenes with Veronica and Logan buying and training a puppy were Jen Graham’s and the…direction…that the overall plot arc regarding long-time beloved characters took…was Rob Thomas. The first of these tie-in novels was good fun, like a middle-of-the-road episode maybe. This one…I only recommend it to Marshmallows who will want to know in detail where the continuity is going. But if you do read it, email me and we can…discuss. Possibly with many ellipses.

Richard von Glahn, Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000-1700. Does what it says on the tin. If you don’t want to read about when they issued what coins and which counterfeiting techniques were prevalent, you will probably not be tempted anyway.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, The Last Changeling. Second in its series, very much a series book, but with new fun elements and clear and significant furtherance of the plot. And not in a way that made me want to punch anybody, either, so go people who are not Rob Thomas. Um. Wait. That was my outside voice. Anyway, this is Faerie fantasy with one of the main characters an apprentice midwife not just in name but in personality/practice, and I really enjoy that.

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Surfacing and more

1. I have a story up at Lightspeed today! Surfacing is available for your reading pleasure. They also did an author spotlight. Go, read, enjoy! The illustration by Elizabeth Leggett makes me very happy. You can also get the entire magazine in ebook format or subscribe so that you get every month in that format. All as you prefer.

(If you were wondering what happened after The Salt Path, this is one of the pieces next to it in the mosaic.)

2. Speaking of illustrations that have made me happy, Julie Dillon, who did the gorgeous illustrations for my two previous stories that are sort of peripherally linked to this story, has a new Kickstarter!

3. I now have heard back from the editorial staff in such a way that I feel I can say that the story I sold and referenced obliquely earlier was “It Brought Us All Together,” which has found a home at Strange Horizons.