I was writing about the difficulties of communication over on FetLife, and I got a sniffy comment that was essentially, “This is not a difficult thing to work out between two sane, mature adults.”
No. It’s not difficult between two sane, consenting adults. It rarely is.
Unfortunately, we’re also rarely entirely sane.
Thing is, sanity is a percentage. We all have weak spots where if you poke us, we melt down. We all have embarrassing hotspots that we reflexively conceal, whether we should or not. You can be perfectly sane about 99% of things, but everyone has some crazy spot that triggers them into overreacting. And everyone has some emotional issue that, when raised, makes them word not so good that communicates are mall workingfail.
And when someone skips across your insane zones – you have them – then you react in bizarre ways, and God forbid your bizarre reactions trample on your partner’s insane zone. If you’re lucky, eventually you deal with it. But that doesn’t make it magically “not hard” to do, especially when your monkey-brain wants to bite their face off for leaving toothpaste on the sink again.
If I only wrote essays aimed at sane, mature adults interacting with other sane, mature adults, the entirety of my output would consist of “Trust your instincts.” But no. I’m writing essays aimed at people who are, say, 86% sane (which is actually a pretty good sanity ratio), and dealing with someone who, up until now, has appeared to been sane 100% of the time (but we both know that’s not true). And we’re asking what happens when either you’re walking into the minefield of your 14% craziness, or are unsure what proportion of crazy your partner has or even where their crazy-zones are.
Of course this issue is not difficult to work out for two sane, consenting adults. No issue is. Might as well say that “Being married is not a difficult thing to work out between two sane, mature adults” or “Raising a child is not a difficult thing to work out between two sane, mature adults,” or any other number of other flabbily unhelpful things, mainly because the definition of “a sane, mature adult” usually lines up darned closely to “someone who never has problems with common issues.”
But as for the rest of us, we’re navigating a list of unspoken assumptions with people we don’t know quite as well as we’d like (which is, actually, everybody we love), trying to see whether the insanity lies within them, or within us, or within both.
And making the blanket assumption that everyone will be as sane as you on this topic tells us that a) this place is somewhere that you are perfectly sane, and b) one of your insanities may lie in the field of empathy.
As a Numenera GM, I have a love-hate relationship with the game. I love the setting; there’s just not enough of it.
Which is to say that by the time I got to Planescape, there were fifteen sourcebooks detailing the setting, and I did not have to make anything up. Now, I’m not opposed to making things up; hell, “generating worlds” is what I do in my fiction.
But when I’m GMing, I want to play with my characters like Barbie dolls, making them walk through the big Barbie Dream House. I don’t want to make up a town myself; no, I want to fall in love with a town that someone else has made up, and then bring it to life for my PCs! And so Numenera, which currently has no detailed sourcebooks, makes me a sad GM; I have to take the three paragraphs detailing, say, Eldan Firth, and make it all up.
And what if future sourcebooks contradict my ideas? What if some day, Monte and Shanna write the Eldan Firth sourcebook, and it’s not at all what I envisioned? I’m a canon freak, I like playing in other people’s sandboxes, so the idea that they could shatter the concept of what my town is unnerves me. I want to be faithful to Numenera’s setting, not create some home brew!
And yet Numenera is so awesome as a game that I must make things up, or else I cannot play it. And so I present to you, my take on one of the classic Numenera cities:
Shallamas, City Of Echoes. (P. 139 in the sourcebook.)
Shallamas is a city twisted by love of assassination. Those who murder in the dark here are celebrated folk heroes – even the ordinary citizens cheer when a stranger is abducted and never heard from again, for assassins were all that drove those Draolish bastards from their beloved city.
The history is simple: years back, the Draolish made a push from down South and captured Shallamas. They garrisoned the town, filling it with their best guards, as Shallamas was one of Navarene’s most prized trading posts – and having captured it in a hard-won campaign, they were determined to keep a grip on it. The city, which had relied on Queen Armalu’s troops for protection, found itself helpless.
So they did what smaller forces always did: they struck where they could, striking in the dark, chipping away at the edges of the Draolish power. But Shallamas had a unique issue that made it harder on the locals -
- the echoes.
Without warning, residents of Shallamas will see and hear “echoes” of recent events, so accurate a picture of the past that viewing an echo is accepted as evidence in court. Knife a man in a back alley at night, there’s a good chance that three days later your crime may be replayed at noon. And so any criminal activity is extremely dangerous in Shallamar, as the people in power have a decent chance of stumbling across replayed evidence.
The Shallamarians took this as a challenge.
Led by One-Eyed Argrash Provani, the rebellion created a vast set of tunnels and traps underneath the city, to this day proudly called The Murder Holes, where unwitting guards could be tricked, dragged, or abducted. They wore identical hoods to ensure that if they were seen, no one would notice. They struck from places no one would think to look in, so even the murder was replayed, who would be watching the rafters? The Provani used poisons, cyphers, never using the same approach twice, filling the Draolish with fear…
…and eventually, after a celebrated coup known as the Night of the Black Knives that took out three Draolish captains in one night, the Draolish retreated.
Years later, the Provani still rule the town, and assassination is seen as the reason no one else has invaded. Only servants and peasants wear bright clothing, purposely given to them to mark them as targets; those in power wear loose-fitting robes of black and silver, seemingly identical from a distance. (Nobles in Shallamas quickly come to mark distinctions in fabric and weave to see which robes are the most expensive.)
The Provani, a large and loosely-bonded family, pride themselves on their ability to still kill quietly. From a young age, the Provani children are taught that stealing isn’t a crime, getting caught is. A nobleman who can’t climb a rain-slickened wall or sneak past his own servants is considered a fool – though such noblemen often hire younger assassins to look out for them, a tactic that sometimes backfires. The weakest of the Provani are assigned to bureaucratic positions, the lowest level of which are the tax collectors; it’s considered a deep shame to have to walk into someone’s house and take money by force.
The Provani are clannish but bored. They’ve shredded the power of all the competing families, and so have begun to play elaborate power games among themselves. The prosperity of the town is working against them, as the quiet peace leaves a family of killers little to do, and so the Provani are beginning to fragment as infighting and boredom take their toll. Only the constant machinations of the current head of the family, Argust Provani, keeps the Provani in line, earning him the name Lord of Intrigues.
As for the people of Shallamas, they harbor the deep suspicion that if an assassin has killed someone, then that person must have deserved it. They’re still horrified by death – the ideal is someone who vanishes without a trace, never being seen again. (Clever merchants have discovered that if they can slip out of town unnoticed, they can often abandon some great debts under the pretense of being “assassinated,” so long as they commit to never returning to Shallamas.) Finding a body in the street has a double horror for the people of Shallamas – at seeing a friend killed, and knowing that they were killed clumsily, doubtlessly by some outsider ruffian.
As such, Argust Provani uses his Shadowlings (secretly family members who he trusts) to stamp out “crime” – which is defined loosely as “Anything that interferes with the goals of the Provani family.” The Provani, despite their infighting, want the town to prosper through merchant trade, and so merchants find it to be a very safe space. Anyone who steals from a merchant is likely to find a short and violent retribution awaiting them. Unless they steal in a surpassingly clever way, in which case the thief might find a highly-placed Provani willing to bring them in as a new “cousin.”
There are four marketplaces in Shallamas – one at each of the three Great Gates that allow entrance to the city, and one in the center. Visitors note that the walls of Shallamas appear to be stone from a distance, but up close are made of some granular material that shifts slightly when no one is looking, and seems to expand and contract slightly as the day goes on.
The three marketplaces at the gates are split up by what merchandise they sell. There’s Devour, where all the foodstuffs are sold – a mucky market filled with blood from the slaughterhouses. There’s The Bleed, where weapons, armor, and training are sold. And then there’s the Turned Eye, the fashion district.
All three gates are guarded by an affable man called Tryp, a man who used to Exist Partially Out of Phase before a cypher accident caused him to split into three equidistant blurs. Now he exists in three places; as you talk to him at the Devour gate, he’ll often pause and mutter an aside to thin air as he answers a question posed to him at the Turned Eye gate. Tryp can no longer be touched or interact with the physical world, a fact he laments, but a squadron of guards at each gate serves him loyally and without question.
The real jewel of Shallamas is The Culvert, the central market surrounding the Provani palace where “all the interesting things wash up.” That’s where merchants ply the most intriguing wares – almost any numenera can be found here, if you look long enough. Getting a slot in The Culvert is a highly political thing; many a provider of exotic armor or bizarre foodstuffs has petitioned the Provanis to be put in The Culvert, only to be stuck in the Turned Eye or the Bleed. In particular, there is a decanted merchant named Liquil who sells exotic animals, condemned to work in the slaughterhouse of the Devour even though he’d be horrified if anyone ate his singing pigs or the brown-winged wagonhauler.
The Culvert bumps up against the batwing-shaped curve of Inviola, the large and mazelike warren-castle that the Provani inhabit. Made of an unknown black material that makes an unnerving chiming noise whenever rain falls on it, it’s rumored the Inviola was here when Shallamas was created, and the town elders built around it. What is known is that the warrens seem distinctly unfit for human habitation, with some hallways small enough that even tiny men must crouch, opening up into huge cavernous rooms with alcoves that could not be possibly reached unless you flew or were pulled up.
Some claim the Inviola is the source of Shallamar’s infamous Echoes. Others claim that’s ridiculous, if that’s the case then why don’t the Provani simply turn them off? And a third faction claims that the Provani know what would happen if they shut down the Echoes, and the ramifications were too terrible for them to consider.
Many in the sci-fi community are horrified by the way their fan-reaction to Jonathan Ross’s aborted emceeing of the Hugos is being presented, now that it’s making national newspaper stories in Britain. “They’re missing vital context!” people are crying. “They’re omitting vital facts! They’re taking a biased view, and skewing things!”
Apply that same criterion to every story that has ever gotten you upset, and ponder how that distortion may also apply before you rush to an easy judgment.
I’ve been at the center of some internet controversy-storms before, and I can tell you: facts always get omitted, contexts always get slurred, opinions always override actual content. Maybe there is a skeleton of truth, teetering around the center of the storm somewhere, but wherever there’s blog-frenzies of reactions, there’s inevitably a lot of cherry-picking. Things get distorted, and villains get made because people love villains.
And people love to feel superior. That’s what the villains are for.
If this is your first time at the rodeo and you’re all like, “…but these people are making judgments upon people I admire without having all the facts!”, then ponder all the times you read a single article from a single person, decided that their story was the full truth of it, and decided to blast it out into the world with the air of “this is what happened” as opposed to “this is one person’s take on events, what I hear disturbs me, and I’m wondering what happened here.”
Because this distortion field is what happens. It’s what always happens. And if you’re offended by the skewed way your community is being presented right now, then remember it the next time you see someone else’s foibles being picked apart, and think, maybe this isn’t the full truth. Maybe I’m missing something.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t post that link. Sometimes, people acting badly are… actually acting badly. Just aim that cannon of your personal PR with the recognition that things are usually more complex than presented, and things tend to congeal very quickly into camps of right and wrong, and the truth is usually floating somewhere in the middle – close enough for both sides to brush fingers against but not quite tight enough for either to hug.
Monkey-brains love simplicity. Despite millions of years of evolution, we have monkey-brains. And simplicity is often the enemy.
(And yes, the same critique could be applied to both the reaction to Jonathan Ross himself, and the reaction to the reaction to Jonathan Ross. That’s rather my point.)
(And yes, I’ve been guilty of this in the past as well. I try not to be. But even trying, I often fail. That is also rather my point.)
I’m a man who goes through a lot of depressive states, and, like most depressives, I don’t announce them.
The problem with depression is that it’s tedious, and actually anti-story. Tales are about people having bold breakthroughs, shedding old habits, transforming into newer and more dazzling people. Depression, however, is like the weather. Some days things are good, some days it’s raining out, and other days there’s a cold winter storm and all you can do is hunker down and hope you survive it.
There’s no beating the weather. There’s no vanquishing the stormclouds. You just learn to buy an umbrella, and hope you have the cash for the heating bills.
I’m undergoing a profound depression right now that’s fluttering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I’m actually loath to call it “depression,” since depression as I have defined it personally has been a chemical thing, this pall of sadness that comes from nowhere for no good reason. It’s like I’ve been drugged to be unhappy – no, actually, that’s precisely what it is, except the drugging is of an organic and accidental nature. This depression, however, is based on a series of career setbacks I’ve had, and I’m struggling to regain my footing, but I’m barely able to function.
I am functioning. This, I am proud of. But it’s at a vastly reduced level, where I’m not responding to things I should, and overreacting to things I shouldn’t, and am in general crawling instead of walking. All my skin has been stripped off, and I am glistening tenderness everywhere.
But I may be very erratic for the next few weeks. I’m very bad at dealing with actual sorrow; chemical depressions I can go, “You’re lying,” and wave them away, but sadness created by genuine events leave me wondering what to do. I will figure it out.
For now, I’m significantly aching that I feel it’s worthy of a blog post to warn people who interact with me. I don’t want any rah-rah you’re wonderful Ferrett speeches, as they’ll slide right off, and there’s a better-than-even chance I may take your head off in the doing. I am not wonderful, not right now. I am crawling back, one step at a time, towards something a little more functional, and maybe I’ll even be stronger, but right now I am so tired of crawling, of needing cheerleaders, of needing to try, that I’m very down.
And you should know, if you plan to interact with me. That is all.
Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter is a mashup that totally shouldn’t work – Jane Austen and dragons.
Yes, Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw is a book where genteel, cannibalistic dragons sit in English countrysides and worry about being married properly. And that is one hell of a thing to sell. It’s a concept so absurd that as an author, you’d have to work overtime to get past the initial silliness of the material – because Jane Austen is actually quite serious stuff.
So the question is, how does Jo Walton signal that these are both dragons and English-style gentlemen?
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Sentence: “Bon Agorin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as though he would fly to his new life in his old body.”
I talked in my analysis of Old Man’s War about the need to signal the presence of a non-standard protagonist right away – if you’ve got someone who’s not white, relatively young, and male, you need to jar the reader out of that default analysis before they get too firmly set in their visualization. (Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily right that people default to zomgcisheterowhitedude, but it is a tendency you need to fight.)
And here, Jo is smart enough to recognize that if you’re gonna write about dragons, you’ve gotta start with a bold signal that these people aren’t human. So: beating wings. But also a deathbed, which hints at a more civilized society – a deathbed implies a long slow death, usually of the elderly, in a comfortable place – so yes. Goal achieved. Both the Austeny components and the dragonish components signaled up front before we’ve exited the first quarter of the first paragraph. (The rest of that paragraph hammers on this double-duty as well – discussing “doctors” leaving the “draughty undercave” where he’s sitting on his “scant gold.”)
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? Usually, it’s in or before the third paragraph, and here it arguably is in paragraph #3: Bon’s son Penn approaches his father on his deathbed to ask what’s wrong. (The next paragraph fleshes this motivation out, where he wonders what’s troubling his father so.)
What Happens In The First Chapter? Bon dies, but not before settling his affairs (dispensing his gold and his body, which his family will eat and grow strong from), and making a shocking confession – that he ate his brother and sister alone to grow large enough to avoid being eaten by his adopted parents. His son, a priest, grants him absolution regardless, but immediately regrets the decision.
There’s some wonderful justified worldbuilding here – and several first-chapter analyses later, one of the keys of “good worldbuilding” seems to be “justified.” In this case, the son attempts to reassure his father by saying this:
“Beginning with more than a gentle name, you have grown to be seventy feet long, with wings and flame, a splendid accomplishment and the respect of all the district. Five of your children survive to this day. I am in the Church, therefore safe…. Berend is well married and has children, her husband is a powerful and industrious Lord. Avan is making his way in Irieth. His is perhaps the most perilous course, but he has strong friends thus far, as you did before him.”
The dialogue rings a little of “As you know, Bob” – but in this case, the son does have some urge to go over his family, to let his father slip into death without guilt. But note what gets accomplished there – we’re told in that first line of dialogue that dragons measure success in foot-growth, that wings and flame are something to be aspired to in this world. And then, in the next sentences, it’s made blatantly clear that being killed is a distinct possibility, one that other dragons have to maneuver to be protected against. All before we’re to the end of paragraph #5.
This is a short chapter, less than five pages, but it is also highly political. Bon is concerned with dispensing gold, splitting up his body; Penn considers himself lucky to have gotten into the Church, and is worried about losing his position as parson. Should it come out that he has given absolution for such a great sin, he could lose his position.
The thing is, the danger presented in the plot is slight. The only person who knows about Bon Agornin’s terrible crime is his son Penn, and no one else. Penn is shaken by the revelation, but it’s doubtful this will affect the plot as of the end of this first chapter. What draws us in is the depth and complexity of this world – we’re not so much fascinated by Penn, who is at this point a rather unprepossessing minister, but rather the idea of a world full of dragons eating dragons, and how does a thinking being maneuver in such a society?
We’re drawn in by the promise of a bigger world. Character is secondary; we want to know the society. And given that the only rule in first chapters is that they have to make you want to read the second, that’s different, but it’s perfect.
1) We had seven guests for our Oscar party last night. There were nine films up for Best Picture.
Not a one of the guests had seen one of the Best Picture nominees.
That’s a problem, because why the hell would you watch the Oscars when you don’t care? Now, clearly people do – seven folks showed up – but that’s like the Superbowl in that there’s such a big social event that it barely matters who’s on the field.
But the Oscars know that ratings rise when people have seen the films (the year when Avatar was up for it was a big spike), and drop when it’s unexciting. That’s why they doubled the number of nominees, one suspects, to give people more of a shot.
Yet Oscar is still Oscar, and likes dreary depressing movies. (12 Years A Slave is a very Large and Important Film that provides a history lesson, but it’s also precisely the opposite of fun.) Oscar doesn’t like action films, or comedies, which means what you get left are a lot of dramas. And dramas are increasingly moving to TV.
(Though we did get a bumper crop of pretty awesome and humorous dramas this year in the form of American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, and Captain Phillips – which one suspects accounts for the decent ratings this year. My guests didn’t watch it, but with four $100 million+ box office blockbusters in the mix, it wasn’t as bad as the year where The Artist was the frontrunner.)
So what’s that mean for the Academy Awards? Tough choice. You can’t just start saying, “Oh, the Avengers!” without really sapping the dignity of the Oscars, but considering the Oscars harp on an increasingly-smaller piece of the movie pie – dramas aimed at grown-ups – then less and less people will be invested as time goes on. People have no one to root for but the dresses. And those are dresses worn by actors and actresses who largely appeal to older people.
Like I said. Tough gig.
2) Ellen Degeneres was a perfectly safe host who played it perfectly safe. You knew what you were going to get with Ellen Degeneres. She is keyed to offend nobody.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I find it hard to get really keyed up about Ellen. She goofs around, makes a couple of good shots, and I kind of forget she’s the host. And again, some people are going to be all “Oh, I love Ellen!” and that’s great, she’s lovable, but as an Oscar host Ellen is pretty dispensable.
Maybe that’s what you want, really: a host who just shoves the people on-stage as quickly as possible and gets the hell off. But again, that makes it harder to get people invested in the Oscars, because you’re basically saying, “The host doesn’t matter. The films do.” And, as previously noted, the films are increasingly less exciting. So what’s anchoring the Oscars?
My Twitter feed hated hated hated Seth McFarlane last year, but the ratings spiked in a relatively low-key year. He got a lot of buzz, and the Oscars did what they inevitably do after a controversial host, which is to go back to an oldie like Billy Crystal (groan) or Ellen Degeneres. Which just gets back to the eternal problem of the Oscars being increasingly irrelevant for the coverted 18-34 demographic, and say what you will about Seth McFarlane, that Family Guy audience tuned in. They generally don’t watch Oscars.
What percentage of them stayed? Who knows? This year’s decent (though not blockbuster) Oscar ratings could be explained by a) a decent amount of blockbusters on the Best Picture block, b) Ellen Degeneres being more popular as an Oscar host than I thought, c) Seth McFarlane revitalizing the format to some small extent, or d) Reply Hazy, Try Again Later.
Yet that’s your problem. The films the Oscars champions are dwindling, going to more long-term positions on television. The hosts can’t be too controversial or they’ll piss people off, but if they’re lame then people get bored (*cough* James Franco *cough*) or don’t get excited. The host is a pretty thankless task, and I’m not even certain they could make a difference, since if they make the kinds of jokes that are really honestly funny, then they’re actually shitting on the people who came to get awards. I thought Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais were great entertainment as hosts (Gervais at the Golden Globes), but they did that by reminding the audience what shallow jerks they were – and while that’s funny to me, I get how it’s inappropriate to take someone who’s gotten their lifetime achievement and yank their pants down around their ankles at the same time.
So can you have an interesting hosts? Billy Crystal’s about as good as it gets. And I’m not really a fan of his cornpone, but people seem to like it.
3) Matthew McConaughey? Best Oscar speech ever. Yeah, he creeped people out by talking about God; as a Christian, I say good for him. And I loved his enthusiasm and articulate nature as he discussed his philosophy. That wasn’t an Oscar speech, which is usually a mumbled list of names through tears, it was a speech. And go him.
(Also, he totally deserved that win, even as I felt bad; in any other year, Chiwetel could have gotten it, as his performance was also sterling.)
Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter is one of a handful of books where, if it had never ended, I would have been entirely happy. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a quasi-Victorian book about two stodgy magicians making it in a quasi-alternate history England, and it’s a gloriously messy little tome. It’s filled with eddies and asides and strangenesses, and I was so entranced by the tone and the imagination that I was actually disappointed when the end of the book hove into view. I recognized the plot had to ratchet things to a conclusion, but why? I was having a good time.
So how did this grand adventure start?
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Suzanna Clarke (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Paragraph: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.”
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? Now here’s the thing – because this is told in third-person omniscent perspective, it’s unclear by the end of fifth page who our protagonist is. Third-person omniscient is infamous for head-hopping among people, flitting in to someone’s thought process to give us a glimpse into their head, and then going off on a tangent.
But what a tangent! Here’s the second paragraph:
“They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – or done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by any magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.”
Now, that’s worldbuilding. By the end of the second paragraph, you have been shown – and not told – what kind of a profession magic is in this world. What’s being characterized here is not a protagonist, but rather a group of people – the magicians of York – and already you get the sense that they’re addled professors, a little bloated on their own digressions, and yet esteemed for reasons that seem mysterious. And the tone is completely straight-faced, as the addition of “With this one minor reservation,” there’s the author saying, “Yes, I know, but this is how people thought.” Brilliance.
But the question that drives the chapter appears at the end of paragraph four, when a new member called John Segundus addresses the society with a question: “In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England.”
And we’re off. The reason I started this series is because I theorized that in most books, by the third paragraph, you know the protagonist’s motivation and why they’re doing things. In a third-person omniscient book, you have no protagonist to track closely, so instead Clarke raises the very question the reader is likely to want to know – and we’re hooked. We don’t know who we’re following, but we know this chapter is going to answer the question it raised – or at least the book might, in time.
What Happens In The First Chapter? Mr. Segundus raises this question to the Society, who proceed to debate the necessity of doing magic. Segundus and his new ally Honeyfoot set out to talk to the one magician in York who did not join the society – Mr. Norrell. Mr. Norrell, however, is seclusive, secretive, and cold. And, of course, Mr. Norrell states that he can do actual magic.
Susanna Clarke has a fascinating way of writing, because what she writes is not about plot, but rather about tone and surprise. Honeyfoot and Segundus are clearly buffoons – but Clarke squeezes a lot of reader interest by never stating this. She’s got an amazing trick of having someone say (or do!) something that is, to them, quite natural, but clearly marks it via subtle textual methods that no, really, this behavior is sort of silly.
In short, she’s her own straight man. And that provides a lot of interest to pull us through a quiet chapter, because we’re actually reading two stories with every paragraph: what the person thinks they’re doing, and parsing out what’s actually happening. Each of the magicians is quite sure of themselves, positive their thoughts will be received with eager interest, and presented as such – but Clarke leads you up to it by having their stated thoughts be just a tad desperate. Tricks like this paragraph, after they’ve been told that there’s a prophecy that two men will bring magic back to England:
“You were entirely right – prophecies are great nonsense,” said Mr. Honeyfoot, laughing. And then, as if struck by a thought, he said, “We are two magicians. Honeyfoot and Segundus,” he said trying it out, as if thinking how it would look in the newspapers and history books, “Honeyfoot and Secgundus – it sounds very well.”
It’s all terribly subtle work, because Clarke hardly ever has anyone notice their foolishness – she just places two contradictory thoughts a little too close together, as she does here, so that you can’t fail to notice it. Or she has Honeyfoot say that he’s happy in the belief that he had pleased Mr. Norrell as much by requesting to see his library as he had himself.
And yet there is a seriousness here. Clarke is lampooning these people, but she is also allowing them their dignity, such as it is; she never denigrates their abilities, she merely points one slender finger towards their weak spots and lets you draw in the details. As such, what could turn into a Terry Pratchett-style sarcasm actually becomes a lovely chapter that oozes with a proper tone. The narrator is too polite to say things, you come to realize, and so you must furnish your own details. And it turn, that politeness becomes a sort of character in and of itself, where you come to realize that you must pay attention for there will be things that go carefully unsaid.
And so you do.
What you wind up with is a chapter that could, in a different book, be handled in eight pages. But the reason I was sad Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was ending is because unlike many books, the interest is not propelled by the plot. Even in this chapter, there are swirls of diversions – do we need to have four paragraphs on the exact debate among the York Society of Magicians? Or summaries of the books in Mr. Norrell’s fantastic library? But Clarke makes them interesting digressions, by suggesting that their worth is of merit that you must judge for yourself, and so you get drawn into them.
One suspects you could pick up almost any chapter in the book and find something of interest. That is the strength of third-person omniscience: you can wander over to any damned subject you please, so long as you make it compelling. And the stylistic choice Clarke makes to dryly shift your attention to this bit before stepping away with a polite cough to let you form your own opinions makes for a very intriguing beginning.
In case you missed it, a storm swept through science fiction this morning. It’s over now.
Basically: the Hugo Awards announced the presenter this year would be Jonathan Ross, who I mostly know for being mean to Manuel. Jonathan Ross is, apparently, known for saying really offensive things on a regular basis – his Wiki page even has a lengthy list of “Controversies” – and when he hosted the British Comedy Awards, it was such a mess of obscenities and obscene jokes that many viewers called for it to be cancelled.
Within six hours of the announcement, Jonathan Ross had gotten so much negative feedback over this on Twitter that he bowed out.
Now, if I were a con committee member and Jonathan Ross volunteered to host because, as became apparent, Neil Gaiman recommended that he do so, I would be reluctant to say no. As should you, if you’re sane. Jonathan Ross has 3.6 million followers on Twitter, most of whom probably don’t tune in to the Hugos, and his audience could be a huge boost to promoting the authors we love. As I said to Mari Ness, even if one in a thousand of his followers tunes in, that’s almost 4,000 new people watching the Hugos.
That kind of influx of fans could be a good thing. If Jonathan Ross doesn’t turn it into a “mock the nerds” punching bag. So while Charlie Stross has some valid concerns about the media attention Jonathan would draw, as a con chair, you’d have to think: “Can I keep him from making off-color jokes? Is there a way to have him hold a respectful ceremony? Because if he can, then we can really enlarge the audience of good science fiction.”
Now, I don’t know the answer to that question. I suspect not. There’s a uniquely British style of comedian who seems to get off on public controversy, and in fact delight in tweaking the rules – Jeremy Geary, Ricky Gervais – and so I suspect telling him, “Okay, keep it respectful, toe the line” would just lead to him shrieking fuck at the first available opportunity. Even if you can excuse his past history, I’d be leery of the future.
But maybe not. Maybe Jeremy was genuinely excited to meet the science fiction authors he claims he loves, and would show an unparalleled respect for the medium, thus bringing in fans. Maybe. I’m not here to argue that, I don’t know the dude.
What I do know is that just randomly announcing this on Twitter to a group of authors still reeling from the last SFWA battle is complete incompetency.
Look. Anyone in the crowd should have known that this would be a gigantic controversy. And by dumbly just going, “Whoo, guess who’s hosting?” without more than a perfunctory public statement, they fucked over both Jonathan Ross and the Hugos.
(If you can’t tell, I don’t mind swearing.)
What should have happened is that they planned this for a Monday morning, and they had a nice press announcement from Jonathan Ross saying, “Oh, wow, I grew up reading science fiction books and I love this medium, and let’s namedrop my love of several books, and I’m really glad to be given this honor to host.” He has a great love of science fiction, I’m told, so use your initial press push to say Hey, I’m one of you. And hopefully assure people he won’t make sexist quips at the ceremony.
And then, since he said on Twitter that Neil Gaiman recommended him for the job, have Neil say, “I think Jonathan will be a fine host, and I couldn’t be gladder he’s got the opportunity.” And whoever else in the zone thinks he’s a good guy.
That would not make your controversy disappear. You’d still have the issue of, I dunno, one of your committee members resigning. And you’d still get a lot of people leaving. But if you’d given us reassurance that he’s not just coming in to mock the nerds, that he loves the medium, that he understands that this isn’t a place to make a quip about unfashionable dresses, maybe you could have gotten science-fiction to go, “I dunno, I think it’s gonna be a train wreck, but let’s give it a shot.”
Now, none of this is to say that Jonathan Ross should be the Hugo host. That’s a discussion for others to have.
What I am saying is that it is literally unconscionable for Lon Con 3 to just drop Jonathan Ross onto us, and us onto him, without actually doing the barest amount of PR work.
And I don’t know that they could have done all this, honestly. Maybe Jonathan Ross wasn’t willing to sit down and do the reassurance thing – after all, he’s a big star, and probably thinks he was doing the con a favor. Maybe they couldn’t get anyone to vouch for him.
But if you can’t get that bare minimum done to calm the waters, then you don’t choose the guy. Because what will happen is exactly what happened.
Now, some think this was a purposeful shot – Lon Con 3 was angry at the SFWA scandals, and chose to haul in a guy who was guaranteed to be controversial so they could watch us tear him to shreds, thus “proving” that science fiction fans are just niggling idiots who’ll tear down anyone. Which I doubt. I don’t attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence, and this smacks to me of “Oh, we’ve got a real person interested in us, someone who’s a star, this is all gonna be so good!” And they were so blind that they allowed this to happen.
I doubt that Jonathan Ross would have done a good job of it, personally. But maybe he could have. And certainly it makes everyone look like idiots when someone presents what is guaranteed to be a controversial issue, so controversial it takes all of six hours to get the man to step down, and doesn’t actually seem to have prepared for the inevitable.
I’m saddened, because this was inevitable. And yet nobody inside the decision-making levels of management seemed to realize that, despite every possible sign.
I understand why they wanted to make “fetch” happen. But someone should have realized that you had to do a lot of groundwork for that.
“Welcome to my house!” your friend says, ushering you in. “Just… don’t walk over into the corner.”
“Why not?” you ask.
“I’m pretty sure that if anyone stood there, they’d fall right through the floor. Not that I’ve ever done it, of course, the linoleum’s all saggy – I wouldn’t trust the entire kitchen, actually. That’s why we keep the refrigerator in the bedroom. And cook our eggs on a hair curler, over the toilet. And – oh, no, don’t lean against that wall! That’s a load-bearing wall!”
“…Shouldn’t a load-bearing wall be able to deal with me leaning against it?”
“It’s only-load bearing so long as nobody adds stress to it. Don’t touch it. No, don’t look at it. Don’t think about it, it’s fragile. Come here, where it’s safe, near the couch.”
“You mean the couch made of balsa wood and papier-mache?”
“It’s a beautiful couch, perfect for every need, so long as you don’t sit on it.”
Here’s the thing about houses: if your house can’t deal with the daily shocks of everyday life, it’s a crappy house. Houses exist to provide a comfortable space for you to live in, and if they’re so fragile that they’ll collapse whenever you try to, you know, live in them, then you should probably move out ASAP.
The same can be said of relationships.
I see a lot of very sad people, going, “Oh, I can’t tell him when I’m upset! He’ll leave me!” Or “I can’t tell her I love her, that’ll ruin this thing we’ve got going!” Or “I need this dirty kind of sex to feel content, but if I ask them to participate in such filth, I’m sure they won’t want to have anything to do with me!”
If that is the case, it is better if the house collapses.
Relationships exist to serve your mutual needs. If the only way you can remain within a relationship is to suppress your most natural urges, then that is by definition a shitty relationship. And if the only way you can keep this relationship functioning is by doing the metaphorical equivalent of cooking eggs on a hair curler over the toilet, then I will tell you the best possible thing you can do is to shove the fridge into the kitchen, see if the floor actually collapses, and if it does, then find a better house.
Someone you are dating should be able to deal with who you are – maybe not who you are at your worst. (I generally find “you at your worst” is the sort of thing you should be making apologies for and trying to keep locked in a closet as frequently as possible.) But they should be able to cope with you having an ordinary bad day, or you raising your voice, or you needing something that you wake up every morning wanting.
Otherwise, you don’t have a relationship. You have an illusion. And illusions will inevitably break.
Over on FetLife, I wrote about how I often don’t tell women about the crushes I have on them, and got a lot of responses that were all like, “Oh, no, Ferrett! If you have a crush on someone, you should tell her!”
No; no, I really shouldn’t. And maybe, neither, should you.
Now, one a personal level, I have the issue that I crush easily, trivially, sillily; I can form a mild crush over a series of pretty pictures or one knock-my-socks-off blog post. My crushes are ethereal things – and though I hold them tight to my heart, if I told every woman I had a crush on, I’d probably spend my days in entangled in embarrassing correspondence. (A correspondence I most likely wouldn’t have time for, because honestly my poly web is pretty full as it is.)
Yet even if I did not crush easily, it’d still be a dick move to drop the crush on random people, because here’s the thing:
Telling someone you have a crush on them is an obligation.
If I go to you and say, “I have a huge crush on you,” that forces you into a situation where you have to respond. Someone’s showed up on your doorstep and dropped a big load of Unexplored Feelings on you, very like a load of dirty laundry, and now you have to do something with that.
And it’s potentially really awkward for the crushee, especially if s/he doesn’t feel the same way back. It hurts for you when your crush gives you the “no thanks,” but there are precious few people in this world who like dashing people’s expectations. And then that poor person has the stress of trying to figure out how to gently let you down -
- or whether they can afford to let you down.
Forrest Gump knew a thing or two about crushes: they’re like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Now, my particular crush is the kind where if you tell me, “Not interested,” I’ll shrug and ask you to a movie next week anyway, because I’ll still like you buckets even if we never do the smoochy-smooch thing.
Yet here’s the thing: even if I tell you all of that up-front, you have no guarantee I am who I say I am.
Because I could be the kind of dude who’s all like, “WHAT? You don’t like me?! Well fuck you, I never wanted your friendship anyway” and then never talk to you again – thus ending a friendship that you valued, but didn’t have the chemistry of attraction in it. Or I could be the kind of creeper who never expected that you would turn me down and so meets your “no” with a seething outrage, marking you as The Enemy for leading me on, determined to fuck you over now for breaking my heart.
Or I could be that kind of guy who shrugs it off with a “Sure, sure,” and then waits until you’re drunk to see if maybe you were lying about that whole crush thing. Or I could be the dude who thinks you’re playing the happy-little denial game, and you get to watch as I move into full-on stalker territory…
Or maybe – and this is often the best-case scenario – despite all of my protests about how I’ll still totes like you anyay, once the attraction is defeated, our friendship subtly mutates from the happy evenness of “We’re buddies!” to “You hold a power over me that I do not hold over you!” and things turn terribly awkward and sad.
The problem with crushes is that people handle doused crushes in all sorts of astoundingly bad ways – and your crushee has no guarantee of how you’ll react. A dropped crush is often a variant on Schrodinger’s Rapist, where the concern of not knowing how you’ll react instills a lot of anxiety as they try to figure out just what your real intentions are. As such, dumping that crush on them just on the off-hand chance s/he might be into it is the height of bad manners. It basically says, “Fuck it – I’ll stress you out if it means I’ve got a shot of getting into your pants.”
Now, I’m not saying to never reveal your crush, because the “quietly suppress all attraction until their defenses are down” is a game played by sad jamooks everywhere. What I am saying is that I’ve met enough people – maybe not a majority of them, but enough to matter – to know that a lot of people are really discomfited when someone expresses a crush out of nowhere.
As such, I suggest that until you know they feel otherwise, consider restraining your crush.
Yes, I understand that’s more work, sifting through your interactions for signs of attraction and weighing the evidence until you come to the conclusion that they’re a) maybe possibly kinda into you, or b) maybe possibly the sort of person who’d be flattered even if they don’t respond in kind.
But the alternative is you saying, “I DON’T CARE WHAT THE FUCK THEY WANT! I WANNA SMOOCH! SO I’M JUST GONNA TELL ‘EM RANDOMLY ON THE OFF-CHANCE THAT I GET WHAT I WANT!”
There’s a word for that, and that word is “douche.”
As a general rule, until you get some signals that someone would like something – and people are emitting signals all the time if you watch carefully – it’s not a bad rule to default to not doing that thing until you know for sure they want that thing. That default behavior applies whether it’s kissing, crushing, helping someone across the street, informing them that they should dress better, touching their hair, offering diet advice, or any range of unasked-for “helpfulness.”)
Old Uncle Ben knew about crushes: “With great crushing comes great responsibility.” If you have inclued the signs that s/he is potentially into you, then fine! Take a rational shot. You’d be surprised how often there is a mutual crushitude if you suspect there might be one. But only do it if you’ve scouted the territory.
Which is why me, sighing over a couple of pretty photos isn’t grounds enough to drop the crush. Me, having been dazzled by an essay or two, isn’t grounds enough either. I should open up a conversation, do some back-and-forth, see if we’re actually compatible before going that route.
Other people asked, “Well, if I have a crush on someone, it’s going to affect our relationship! Shouldn’t I tell them, rather than swallowing my emotions?” And yes, there are circumstances where you’re desperately in love with your best friend and need him to know, and then you maybe should just to get that out in the open where it won’t fester.
But a lot of douches do that as a way of saying, “If you’re not fucking me, then I don’t need you in my life – so are you in?” In which case you should probably just end this so-called friendship, as you’re a crappy goddamned friend. And there’s also a lot of douches who go, “Well, the chick I work with at Wendy’s needs to know about my raging boner for her, and that’s affecting our relationship!” And once again, we’re back to “I want my shot at fucking them, no matter how uncomfortable it may make them.”
Not every attraction needs to be followed up on. Consider their situation, whether it’s something that’s going to benefit their life, and whether you’re actually improving their situation… or inconveniencing them to improve yours.
That’s pretty much it. I could have written this whole essay in two words – “Be courteous” – but I felt it needed some more concrete details.