N.K. Jemisin

Coming in August 2015

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

A season of endings has begun. It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, from which enough ash spews to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

And it ends with you. You are the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where orogenes wield the power of the earth as a weapon and are feared far more than the long cold night. And you will have no mercy.

Learn more (coming soon).

Identity should always be part of the gameplay

This is sort of a tangential response to John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting. Good article; you should read it… and the comments. Yeah, I know, I usually say don’t read the comments. But I think they’re illuminating, if frustrating, in this case. If you’re not a straight white male, it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think. If you are a straight white male, Scalzi’s talking to you; listen.

I’ve been playing the hell out of Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 on the Xbox 360 lately. This is partly because life’s been busy and killing electronic monsters and assholes is great stress relief. More than that, though, these are just incredibly good games. I’ve been something of a snob where it comes to RPGs in the past, preferring Japanese over Western-made RPGs because the Western ones usually sucked on the criteria I care most about: characterization and plot. I suspect Western eRPGs were originally made to emulate the fun of playing tabletop RPGs, within which nonlinearity, customization, and identification (“you are the character!”) are the main goal. In tabletop games, players are expected to provide most of the energy for plot and characterization themselves. Since 99% of the Western games I’ve played up ’til now have made it very clear I’m not the character — if I’m lucky, I might get to play as a white woman — the identification component has never been much of a draw for me. And as someone who spends her professional life churning out worldbuilding, plot, and characterization every day… well, I’d just rather sit back and let someone else do the heavy lifting when I’m trying to relax. Fortunately the DA games break the Western RPG mold in some really nice ways.

The “identification” component is still a problem in the DA games, because the best I could do for trying to assemble a character who looked like me was a sort of burnt-sienna-skinned woman with naturally straight hair. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t be black unless I somehow assumed that some kind of magic hair-straightening process existed, and every brown person used it. (I suppose it’s not a far stretch from dragons to sodium hydroxide. ::sigh::) Still, Bioware tried, which is more than most game companies have done, and they did it on more than a superficial level. I was thrilled to see that my DA2 character’s whole family turned brown along with her, and that there was one other playable character at the dark end of the spectrum*. There were also lots of characters of color in the background — not as many as I would’ve expected in DA2, which takes place in a port city; in our own world, port cities have historically been very heterogenous — but enough to have a real presence. That made it clear the dark skin option wasn’t just an afterthought.

I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to create a character like me, if I didn’t want to. I could be several flavors of white, which wouldn’t exactly be a novelty — but somehow it feels better when it’s a choice. I could be vaguely Asian or Middle Eastern; both of these options had the same limitations as the vaguely black model, but the option was there. I could be male or female. Better still, both games incorporated relationships with other characters as a game mechanic. I could be nice; I could be an asshole. I could pursue a romantic relationship or be “just friends” with everyone; I could have a completely non-sexual romance or burn up the bedrolls every time we hit camp. If I chose sex, I could settle down monogamously or jump every playable character in the game. (With frustrating exceptions. I can’t be the only one who thought Varrick was hot.** Le sigh.) And much has been made of how players can pursue these romances regardless of their own sexual orientation, or the other characters’ gender. Hell, that’s what ultimately made me give these games a try.

So at this point I’ve played as a vaguely black female rogue, a vaguely brown male mage, a vaguely black female elf warrior, and — in my most recent playthrough — a white guy. (Ah, what the hell.) I’ve romanced men as a woman, men as a man, and women as a woman; I’m currently debating whether I feel like making my white guy romance a woman, but since that would feel like every other game I’ve played ever I think I’ll stick to the men. Or maybe I’ll just skip the romances altogether this time around.

All these options have a real, meaningful impact on how the game’s story unfurls. Drive away a character by being carelessly rude, and a life-saving endgame option might not appear. Butter up the wrong woman and suddenly you’re embroiled in an interspecies war. And all along the way, other characters’ reactions to you are highly colored by what you are, not just your choices. Mages are second-class citizens in this world, so if you’re a mage, you can never become king/queen even after you save the world — and if you try, you might eventually be imprisoned or lynched. If you’re an elf — another maligned group — every merchant will assume you’re penniless; society ladies will clutch their pearls if you pass too near; and you’re doomed to a life of scorn and oppression no matter how much money and glory you accumulate. If you’re a refugee from a nation that was recently devastated by war, you can immigrate to a safer city… where you have no rights, everyone preys on you, and if you don’t do every dirty job you can find, you’ll starve or be sold to slavers. If you’re a man, serving in the priesthood is off-limits to you, though it’s clear this society is fundamentally patriarchial. If you’re a noble, you’re bound by a rigid set of social rules that you cannot violate without potentially losing everything.

So basically, the DA creators have had the sense to acknowledge that the non-optional demographics of a person’s background — her gender, her race, the class into which she was born, her sexual orientation — have as much of an impact on her life as her choices. Basically, privilege and oppression are built in as game mechanics. I can’t remember the last time I saw a game that so openly acknowledged the impact of privilege. Lots of games feature characters who have to deal with the consequences of being rich or poor, a privileged race or an oppressed one, but this is usually a linear, superficial thing. The title character in Nier, for example, is a poor single father who’s probably too old for the mercenary life (he looks about 50, but via the miracle of Japanese game traditions he’s probably only 30), but he keeps at it because otherwise his sick daughter will starve. His poverty is simply a motivation. No one refuses to hire him because they think poor people are lazy. He meets a well-dressed, well-groomed young man who lives in a mansion at one point, and the kid doesn’t snub him for being dirty and shirtless. (In fact the kid falls in love with him but that’s a digression.) His age and race and class don’t mean anything, even though in real life they would. So even though I love Nier — great music, fascinating and original world — I like the DA games better. Even in a fantasy world, realism has its place.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the SFF writing world about how to write “the other” — i.e., a character of a drastically different background from the writer’s own. It’s generally people of privileged backgrounds asking the question, because let’s face it: if you’re not a straight white able-bodied (etc.) male, you pretty much know how to write those guys already because that’s most of what’s out there. So right now I’m speaking to the white people. One technique that gets tossed around in these discussions is what I call the “Just Paint ‘Em Brown” technique: basically just write the non-white character the same as a white one, but mention somewhere in the text, briefly, that she’s not white. Lots of well-known SFF writers — Heinlein in Starship Troopers, Clarke in Childhood’s End, Card in Ender’s Game — have employed this technique. I’ve seen some books mention a character’s non-whiteness only as a belated “surprise” to the reader (near the end of the book in the Heinlein example). The idea, I guess, is that the reader will form impressions of the character sans racialized assumptions, and therefore still feel positively about the character even after he’s revealed to be one of “them.”

This technique is crap. For one thing, the reader does form racialized assumptions about the character; the assumption is just that he’s white. For another, the whole thing treats race as the punchline of a joke. A writer who does this doesn’t need to make any effort (e.g. researching history, meeting people, learning about social systems) to create verisimilitude between the character and the worldbuilding. The writer just writes the character as white, then “paints” him brown with a few words. Worse, this technique not only assumes but supports the reader’s racism. Characters of color are assumed to be so unacceptable to white readers that they cannot be named as such from the outset (even though in a visual medium or real life that’s practically the first thing most people would notice) without making the book unreadable. CoCs can be “tolerated”, though, if a) their race is treated like an afterthought, because b) they read like white people the rest of the time.

There’s nothing challenging about pulling this stunt. It’s lazy characterization on the writer’s part and lazy engagement on the reader’s part. A black person is not a white person painted brown, a woman is not a man with tits, and identity isn’t an afterthought or a trick. So why the hell do so many writers think this technique is a great idea?

(Rhetorical question. I know why.)

Better to do things the DA way: acknowledge the ways in which what we are affects what we can do — and how easy it is to do those things, and who we’ll get to do them with. Treat identity like something real, not a gimmick. Understand how the systems built around identity — many flavors of bigotry and privilege, socioeconomics, even science and history — impact every aspect of life from careers to relationships to survival, and don’t tiptoe around this reality. Your story will thank you for it. Your readers — all of them — will, too.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll get back to seducing Anders. I hate the guy, but what the hell; it’s just a game.

ETA for clarity. Wrote this pre-coffee, ya’ll.

* Although I had some issues with Isabela’s characterization. Woman who loves sex and does it lots, yay! Woman who does lots of sex being the only brown woman in the game? Argh, stereotype. (Still slept with her, tho’.)

** and the Arishok oh God I can’t believe I said that

An alternate appendix

Stealing Martha Wells’ idea; I’m going to be posting the occasional deleted scene from my various works over the next few weeks. And since people have asked, I’m starting with the one I read at Comic Con, during my “Spotlight” panel. This would have been the second appendix of The Kingdom of Gods, if the short story “Not the End” hadn’t smacked me between the eyes after I wrote this. Enjoy!

APPENDIX 2: Spider Speaks

The following is a recorded and transcribed vision of the godling known as Spider (Litaria designation 3301-A, Nahadothan niwwah godling attached to Teman Protectorate, northern coastal territory). For further information, see An Index of Elder Godlings, which may be obtained by written request from the private collection at Echo, Dekarta Arameri Memorial Library. Vision recorded by unknown Spider devotee.
Continue reading ›

San Diego Comic Con

Le’ me ‘splain. No, no, no, there is too much; le’ me sum up.

photo of a SDCC panel

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Peng

Last weekend I was at San Diego Comic Con as a Special Guest of the convention. I’ve been to New York Comic Con before, but… there’s really no comparison. NYCC has a different character — more corporate, somehow; less eclectic. And it doesn’t take over the whole damn city. SDCC is a city. Guesstimates (this is from one of the con staffers assigned to me as a “handler”) were that 140,000 people were at this one. The convention center’s capacity, note, is 130,000 — but I saw at least one scalper hawking counterfeit badges, so I think the over-max guesstimate is probably correct.

And my verdict? SDCC was stunning, overwhelming, awesome, terrifying, and magnificent. The Guest Relations Team took wonderful care of me, and I did my best to take good care of myself — but I’ve still picked up a touch of con crud, which has been threatening all week to become a full-blown cold. And though, sadly, many of my friends were at Readercon (taking place at the same time on the east coast), I got a chance to see some folks I haven’t seen in years, and be on panels with some of ’em — including Marjorie Liu, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, Seanan McGuire, and more. I got to meet some new people, some of whom I utterly and shamelessly fangirled at, including Lynn Flewelling (fantasy writer whose Nightrunner books I’ve loved) and David Gaider (lead writer for Bioware, and my current favorite game Dragon Age) and Stephan Martiniere (the artist who did the painting that became the cover art for the Japanese edition of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). Mr. Martiniere gave me a free print of this painting! It’s beautiful and I’m going to be framing it and hanging it in my apartment ASAP.

The goods: the aforementioned meeting of cool people and mooching of Stuff. Reading a never-before-published deleted bit of The Kingdom of Gods to a gigantic, packed room of I’m-guessing 250 people. Doing panels in packed rooms of I’m-guessing 500 people. Doing signings for almost that many; met a lot of cool West Coast fans. Going to a Brazilian steakhouse for the first time with Lynn Flewelling, her husband, and two new friends; holy crap, I’m still full. Using my “guest clout” to get into the Firefly Reunion panel; I tried not to be a diva, but I gotta admit it was nice to pull rank just once. (Ducks flying stuffed animals from people who stood in line all night. Sorry!)

There were not-so-goods. The crowds; holy crap, I’m not generally the type to get uncomfortable in crowds, but I did this time. Fortunately I had a hotel room to retreat to on those occasions when I shunted from “ooh, wow!” into “GRAH, KILL” mode; that helped a lot. I did stand in line for a few events, one of which was the infamous “Black Panel”. I’d heard such good things about that panel from previous years, but this year it was a real disappointment. Shaquille O’Neil was present, hawking a thoroughly unimpressive comic book he’s produced, but that wasn’t really an issue. What annoyed me was that the Black Panel — which had two white members, one of whom was the panel’s only listed woman — had no black women on it. And when questioned about this by an audience member (and me, via Twitter), the moderator blew it off with something completely bizarre: (paraphrase) “We get this question every year. We’ve made a real effort to include women in previous years, so I don’t know why they keep asking it.” Maybe because you gave up the effort, dammit. Worse, the panel was nothing but a banter-and-love-fest between the panelists; there was nothing informative about it. I’d come hoping to get some exposure to new artists, new books, news about cool stuff forthcoming. Other than Shaq’s (repeat: unimpressive) comic book, there was none of that. I left before the panel ended, honestly; I got bored.

And the Firefly Reunion, for all my excitement, was a disappointment too. Half the cast wasn’t there, including the actors who played my favorite characters (Zoe, Kaylee, Inara, and Book). And there was a seriously oogy moment when an Asian fan stood up to ask about Firefly’s infamous exclusion of Asian characters/actors from a supposedly Asian-dominated universe. Whedon’s answer was… less than satisfying.

Also, I almost got a photo with Anthony Bourdain, but the fanboy I gave my camera to took a lovely photo of his thumb. HULK SMASH.

Still, on balance, the con was a hit. Will I be going back? No time soon! It was so overwhelming that I’m not sure I want to make a yearly thing of it; it’s been almost a week and I’m still physically exhausted. If they invite me again as a guest, I’ll consider it, certainly. But maybe in a few years. :)

Dear Fandom: Grow the Fuck Up

I’ve been in a state of apoplexy for the last 48 hours or so, because a) I’m still in recovery mode from Comic Con (short version: it was awesome and overwhelming, more later), and b) coming back from Comic Con has left me maybe hyperaware of all that’s both right and wrong about the entire media-consuming community.

Comic Con itself is an example of what’s right. 100,000+ people took over downtown San Diego for 5 days and there were no riots, nobody got shot, and while there was one unfortunate incident, for the most part things went remarkably well. SDCC felt kind of like Mardi Gras to me, with better costuming but sans vomit, piss, and those assholes who make “Girls Gone Wild” videos. (They might’ve been there, but if so they were on the downlow.)

Things wrong with mediadom, though, include this. And this, which happened at Readercon, same Bat-time but across the continent from SDCC. And holy crap, this, which has been happening for several days but I just found out about it yesterday. (Good linkspam here.)

I just… I don’t… no. No. Bad fandom. BAD! Were you all raised in barns? Did you receive no home training? Where in the lexicon of Acceptable Human Behavior does it say that it’s okay to stalk someone because you like them, or because you want to apologize to them, or because they don’t like something you like, or because they do but not the way you want them to like it? Why do we express ourselves in this way? What the… who the… GRAAAAH.

Look, I know how it feels to love something you’re consuming, or creating. I also know how it feels to hear that other people don’t love it. I’ve been on the receiving end of some really scathing reviews, and I’ve even given in to the urge to respond once or twice — mildly, and briefly. I’ve known how it feels to be the dominant group in a space, and to feel some ownership of a thing, and to feel threatened when “those other” people encroach on it. I really, honestly do get the spark of emotion that lurks at the heart of all these examples of rampant assholism. But.

I am not twelve years old. And thus I do not allow the spark of emotion to flare into a Burning Flame of Righteousness, and certainly I don’t pour gas on it so it’ll blaze into a Bonfire of Frothing Stupidity. Because I am not twelve years old.

If you are reading this, and you are legitimately twelve years old (or under) — GTFO, this is a blog for grownups, your parents should never have let you come here unsupervised. Everyone else, though? If you’ve ever done any of the things the people in these incidents are doing, to any degree? If you’ve thought about doing them? Stop, drop, and grow up.

And once again, I will point you at John Scalzi’s site, where he’s posted his policy on how readers should react to negative reviews of anything he’s affiliated with. Which mostly boils down to, “Don’t.” I feel like I shouldn’t need a policy like this; I feel like it’s stating the obvious. But maybe I do — so rather than reinvent the pixels, I’ll just say “what he said.”

Because, really.

The end of an era

Jed Hartman’s retiring from editorship at Strange Horizons.

Jed talks about this himself, so go over and read his blog post, and say goodbye. It’s not a sad affair; it’s just time to move on for him, which I totally get. But I think it’s important to point out just how revolutionary SH has been — and no, I’m not heaping praise upon it because Jed & the gang have published two of my short stories, which gave me 2/3rds of the sales I needed to reach SFWA pro status. I’m heaping praise upon it because the folks who started that magazine have done a lot to change this genre for the better. At the time SH first started, SFF magazines were largely all print, hard to find on the newsstand shelves (you had to subscribe to be sure), and representative of many things wrong with the genre: women rarely appeared in their tables of contents, people of color rarely appeared in their pages, and too many of the stories published were thinly-veiled paeans to colonialism or white male power fantasy. SH just threw that whole model out and went back to the drawing board. They opted for broad accessibility rather than esoteric tradition. They embraced literary quality with the same fervor as speculative content, where other markets turned up their collective noses at genre meandering or stylistic shenanigans. And despite many, many naysayers at the time who predicted their early and ugly demise, they succeeded. They’ve been here all this time. They pay authors a pro rate even though they’re funded solely by donations. And they’re largely responsible for the rise of a new era of diversity within the genre, in content and composition and personnel — of whom Yours Truly is just one example.

I wish the new SH team luck, but I’m sad to see you go, Jed. Still, go with the assurance that ya done a good thing. Or three. Good luck in all your future endeavors!

More Fanart Awesome

I’ve been remiss — found this one weeks ago, and asked the artist for permission to repost… then forgot to check back and see if she’d given permission. (D’oh.) She did, so here is “Dayfather and Nightlord”:

portrait of Itempas and Nahadoth side by side

Click to biggify, because it’s beautiful and should be viewed in its true size and glory. Of drawing only two of the Three, artist ex-machina says, “I’d have drawn the Grey Lady too, but she wasn’t turning out the way I wanted… more sketches necessary.” I like what she’s got so far. Now go visit ex-m’s site and tell her how awesome she is.

My Comic Con Schedule

Next week I’ll be a Special Guest at San Diego Comic Con. Now, I’ve been to New York’s Comic Con several times, but SDCC is its bigger, meaner older brother, and I have to confess that I’ve been a little intimidated by the idea of the whole thing. Still, it’s hard not to get excited, ’cause holy crap see what I’ll be doing:

    Thursday, July 12: Racebending.com: Creating Diverse Spaces for Diverse Representations

    I was excited about this already, because I think the folks at Racebending are doing a hero’s work, poking Hollywood with a stick to get it to stop being so damn racist. Then I saw that Marjorie Liu, who’s cool as hell, would be on the panel. Then I saw that David Gaider would be on it — and for anybody who knows me in a gaming sense, my latest obsession has been the Dragon Age games. So now I get to gush at him over how incredibly well-written they are! (Haven’t started the Mass Effect series yet. In good time, people, in good time.)

    Thursday, July 12: Spotlight on N. K. Jemisin

    So, apparently I’m supposed to do something for this. Like, a reading or an interview or something… er. Um. Yeah. I’ll figure it out. ::ulp::

    Friday, July 13: Epic Fantasy War

    Me and a bunch of other fantasy writers being awesome together. I’ll finally get to meet Christopher Paolini and find out how he feels about my Inheritance Trilogy series name! I’ll finally get to fangirl in person at Lynn Flewelling! Did I mention AWESOMENESS?

    Somewhere in there (probably after the Spotlight panel) I will do a signing, too. Or maybe two.

    So see you soon, fellow SDCCers!

Recent guesting about

Apologies again, folks, for not updating here much. Between my day job and my new trilogy deadlines, I don’t have a lot of free time for blogging. Still, I’ve done a little blogging and interviewing in order to promote the Dreamblood duology, so here’s a roundup of stuff I’ve said elsewhere, in no particular order.

“The Unexotic Exotic” at The Book Smugglers.

People who read these books may be able to identify with a few traits of each of these characters, but no one will match them all. And that’s fine — because in theory, readers can identify with any character who’s written well enough. In theory. We see the uglier truth in reality, however. We see that boys balk at reading books with girl protagonists. Publishers hesitate to put characters of color on book covers for fear white readers won’t buy them. Even those characters who make the cover are almost never fat, or queer, or old, or visibly disabled. There is a crisis of connection in English-language fiction, and it exists because we — speaking as a lifelong book lover here — have been conditioned to have trouble relating to people substantially different from ourselves.

Instead, at best, we exoticize. At worst, we hate.

This is what the Dreamblood books face. And although I really just want to write a good, exciting fantasy tale about ninja priests, I’d be stupid if I didn’t acknowledge this reality and design my worldbuilding accordingly.

Interview in the Book Smugglers’ monthly newsletter

The Dreamblood is my effort to write traditional epic fantasy, just to see if I could. Problem is, most modern epic fantasy bores me to tears! Too much of it feels to me like it originated as a D&D campaign, with stock characters who have to grind through a stock setting, a magic system that’s supposed to be logical but is really just complicated, and a very foregone conclusion. I would’ve gotten bored halfway through writing one of those. So I had to write the kind of traditional epic fantasy I could enjoy: with a setting that looked nothing like medieval Europe, characters who don’t fit the usual archetypes, and magic that owes less to 3D6 and more to social science and non-Western beliefs about the supernatural. My favorite epic fantasies all do this, as do my favorite ancient epics, so I tried to emulate those.

“Five Things I Now Know About Being a Professional Writer” at my agent’s blog

Sometimes it’s laughable to think of myself as powerful; unless they’re mega-bestsellers, writers are pretty much at the bottom of the hierarchy in the publishing world. But the fact remains, we have more influence than any individual reader. We have — and it’s hard for me to even say this word, because it still feels kind of egotistical to think this way — fans. And ultimately, if our work gets enough attention, we have the power to change the genre itself.

All reviews that I’ve seen so far of The Killing Moon are here. Lumped in a few of The Shadowed Sun, though there aren’t many of those yet. I’ll round them up later.

The Killing Moon made NPR’s summer reading list!

And I made Bookpage’s Ten Women to Watch in 2012!

Did two podcast interviews at Geek Girl Crafts and Reading and Writing Podcast.

OK, back to work for me!

Introducing… er…

Cat in a bookcase.

This sweet thing is my new cat! I just adopted her yesterday from my vet (who manages a small no-kill shelter; if you’re in NYC and looking for a cat, BTW, let me know and I’ll refer you to him). This was one of the few photos I was able to snap of her before she disappeared into my closet and/or under my bed. She’ll settle in eventually.

My vet thinks she’s about 9 years old — which is good for both of us, since I prefer to have older cats who’ve settled out of their kittenish obnoxiousness, and since older cats tend to have a hard time finding new homes. She was abandoned at my vet’s office by some guy who dropped her off in a box, claimed he would return for her later, and never did. Someone spent a lot of money on her at one point; she’d already been spayed and (sigh) declawed. And she’s obviously been a housecat for some time; she’s perfectly housetrained, doesn’t jump onto things she shouldn’t, and loves people. I don’t understand how someone could have a cat like this and just… stop wanting her. But that’s why she’s with me, now.

I suspect she’s a Maine Coon. I don’t normally go for purebred animals — seems to me “mutt-cats” are healthier; witness NukuNuku’s 19-plus years — but she’s got the conformation and coloring, and she’s also painfully thin beneath her fur, which is something that happens to MCs when they get older, I’ve noticed. (Considering how much she ate yesterday, we might be able to remedy that somewhat.) She also has a remarkably tolerant temperament; when she’s not hiding, she’s super-friendly, and at the vet’s office they noted that she doesn’t mind being picked up and cuddled — also a common MC trait. (If you ever want to have a cat that’s good for toddlers/small children, get a Maine Coon; I’ve had lots of friends with kids who’ve sworn by the breed for that reason.) The vet could probably do a genetic test to confirm her breed, but I don’t care so won’t bother.

But I’ve got a dilemma: I’ve only ever inherited cats who’ve already been named. “Lindsay” was just a temporary name the vet techs gave her, since the schmuck who abandoned her her former owner didn’t tell anyone her real name. But since I associate “Lindsay” with “Lohan”… let’s just say I’m thinking about a change. She doesn’t feel like a “Lindsay” anyway. Suggestions welcome! (And no, they don’t all need to be elaborate anime-flavored constructions like “All Purpose Cultural Cat NukuNuku” — I didn’t name NukuNuku, although that name fit her to a T.)

So please welcome… uh, her!

But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. -Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius) by way of Larry Niven by way of Clarke

La la la can’t hear you. -Me

This is a whine, not a rant. I rant when I’m angry; right now I’m just frustrated and annoyed. It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these rules I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and —

Waitaminnit.

This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder. Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction? Science fiction has plenty of its own magicky stuff to enjoy (e.g., FTL, “psi” powers). Shouldn’t fantasy do something different, not just in its surface trappings but in its fundamental assumptions?

Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.

And here’s the thing: fantasy — specifically English-language fantasy since that’s all I’ve been able to read — used to get this. When I read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea again last year before the Center for Fiction’s Earthsea Big Read, I was struck by the fact that none of the stuff Ged learned at Roke made any sense. OK, it was all about names. To figure out the names of things, wizards basically had to experience enough to understand them, and disengage with their preexisting assumptions — and then, apparently, they had to cross their fingers and wish really hard. Because magic was an experiment whose results were never repeatable, never predictable, and even the most accomplished wizard could only make an educated guess about what would happen any time magic was used. And in fact, magic itself could change as its caster changed. It was an intuitive thing, not an empirical thing, and an intuitive wizard could build a spell out of guesses — or leaps of faith — based on nothing more than gut feelings. Also, feelings mattered. Bring the wrong feelings into a magic-working and it could all go pear-shaped. Le Guin rendered this beautifully, and I loved it, because it felt like magic should feel to me. So did Tolkien’s magic, which had the same all-over-the-place weirdness to it. In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.

Here’s what I think happened between Tolkien/Le Guin and now: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has a lot to answer for re the modern fantasy audience (and I say this as a fan of D&D). I blame D&D for systematizing so many things that don’t need to be or shouldn’t be systematized: fantastic racism, real racism, gender essentialism — hell, let’s just say all the “isms” — career choice, morality. Yes, yes, D&D has gotten better over the years, and yes all these things happened in the genre (in spades) before D&D, but remember boys ‘n’ girls et al: systems are remarkably effective at reinforcing stupid thinking. This is because systems are self-reinforcing and have internal consistency even when they’re logically or ethically questionable. It’s the way the human brain works: when enough events occur in a pattern, we stop thinking and go into macro mode. Then suddenly we see nothing wrong with saying that of course orcs are evil, because they’re orcs. Or of course magic has to be logical, because how else are we going to simulate its effects numerically and in a fair way that encourages good team mechanics?

That’s game logic, this concern over quantitative fairness and teambuilding. Game logic should not apply to magic, because it’s fucking magic.

OK, let’s get personal. The Inheritance Trilogy. There was a magic system, of sorts: the scriveners had to learn how to write the gods’ language. This was a science to them, very precise, very detailed, riddled with rules and empirical tests — and I deliberately did not focus on it or describe it beyond the most superficial level. Why would I? I wasn’t interested in the mechanics. I created scrivening solely to frame gods’ magic by contrast, and to illustrate the more fundamental differences between mortals and gods. Scrivening: limited, generalizable, a system complex enough to make Gary Gygax proud. Gods’ magic: SMITE, the end. What, you think the Greeks ever rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang? (Please don’t send me links to wherever someone has rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang.) As far as I was concerned, it defeated the whole point of writing about gods to focus on something so pedantic as “how they do what they do.” They’re gods. They work in mysterious ways. Also: fucking magic.

I imagine there will be some who take issue with the narcomancy used in the Dreamblood books, even though that’s a little more systematized, because it’s partially based on stuff Jung thought up during a psychotic break. Well, we’ll see.

Part of my frustration comes from a few incidents lately in which I’ve worked with up-and-coming writers as part of convention workshops, etc. I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers — and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.

Is that all fantasy is? Thin storytelling papered over a players’ guide? Is that all fantasy should be? Mechanistic magic, formulas and figures?

Of course not. Fantasy is, can be, should be, so much more than that. So give me mysterious, silly, weird, utterly cracktastic magic please. And easy on the logic. It’s not like we’re doing science, here.


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