Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Intertwingled series


Everything is deeply intertwingled - Ted Nelson

Yes, but he was talking about hypertext and computers! I wasn't prepared for intertwingularity in my writing life!

Back in January, when I stopped writing to wrestle with the alligators that occasionally crop up in Real Life, my writing plans were straightforward. The sixth and final book in the Applied Topology series was ready to go, and in fact I did manage to hold off the swamp denizens long enough release A Revolution of Rubies last month. Subsequently I had written a stand-alone Regency fantasy, Salt Magic, and had started a new series that I thought of as a spin-off from the Applied Topology books. It was set in Austin and had a new set of characters and a new take on magic. Thalia from Applied Topology made a couple of cameo appearances, but the books could be read completely independently. I'd written The Language of the Dragon and A Trail of Dragon Scales and was halfway through Like a Dragon when I had to put everything on hold for a while.

Fast-forward to last week, when I resumed working, and... well, I should never have named the lead character in the Applied Topology series for Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy. She has enjoyed messing with my mind from Day One. And so while my attention was all on putting out fires, she used the unwatched back of my head to develop a seventh Applied Topology book. What's more, internal considerations dictate that this book happens after the first two Dragon Speech books but before the third.

Does't necessarily mean that they have to be written or published in this order, of course. Lois McMaster Bujold hops back and forth a lot in her Vorkosigan universe. But it's easier on me if I write the books in chronological order; that way I don't run into the problem of characters in Book N+1 not being aware of events that scarred them for life in Book N. And it's probably easier on readers if the books are published in chronological order.

So here I am with two different series operating in the same fictional world. How do I signal to readers that these books actually share not only a world but some characters and events, and that if they want to follow a strict chronology they should read Applied Topology 1-6, Dragon Speech 1-2, Applied Topology 7 and then Dragon Speech 3? Do I even need to do that? The first two Dragon Speech novels can be read without knowing anything about the Applied Topology events, although readers of the first series may get a few chuckles at how Thalia is perceived by someone outside her little circle of topologists. If I'm careful about writing the 7th Applied Topology book, it should neither depend on events in the Dragon Speech books nor give away the major elements of those books. Similar care will be required when I get back to Like a Dragon.

I guess I've muddled around to the point of answering my own question! Separate series, separate numberings, and do some fancy dancing around the intertwingularities.

Still, I'd like some way of letting potential readers know that these series operate in the same world and even overlap to some extent. After a suggestion from Mad Genius Club, I'm wondering if there's some way to tag all the books with something like "A Keep Austin Weird Book". Or would that be too much information? And would it be meaningless to people from the rest of the known universe? I'm used to seeing "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers every time I go out, but would someone from Michigan get the reference?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

If we could only see the future



I said "future" but this rambling train of thought originated in the past -- a hundred and ten years ago, to be precise, when Edith Nesbit wrote a children's book called The House of Arden. During my excessively fraught January I was looking for soothing reading; I like Nesbit's other books and was delighted to discover this one that I had somehow overlooked before. It's about a brother and sister living in 1908 who get the ability to travel to other times. On a visit to the England of Henry VIII they meet a boy who seems to know a lot about 1908 and doesn't like what he knows:

****

"I hate your times. They're ugly, they're cruel," said Richard.

"They don't cut your head off for nothing anyhow in our times," said Edred, "and shut you up in the Tower."

"They do worse things," Richard said. "I know. They make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or to be happy in. They won't give people food or clothes, or let them work to get them; and then they put the people in prison if they take enough to keep them alive. They let people get horid diseases, till their jaws drop off, so as to have a particular kind of china. Women have to go out to work instead of looking after their babies, and the little girl that's left in charge drops the baby and it's crippled for life. Oh! I know. I won't go back with you."

****

My jaw dropped when I read this passage. Surely by 1908 the Industrial Revolution had improved life in England past this point?

That sent me to a very useful reference book, Ralph Fogel's The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. I'd read this book many years ago but as it turns out, I was a bit shaky on the details. Yes, the Industrial Revolution and other developments (public sanitation, antibiotics) did eventually put humanity in the Western World on a rising path of better nutrition, better health, and longer lives -- but in 1900, though Fogel's graphs show the improvement was just around the corner, it wasn't there yet. Life expectancy in England had risen from 36 in 1800 to 48 in 1900 -- an improvement, but it could easily be missed in comparison with the astonishing gains of the next century: by 1990, life expectancy in England was up to 76. The English poor of 1908 were still undernourished, overworked, and prey to chronic ailments.

Nesbit's character Richard is a member of the aristocracy in Tudor times, but a poor orphan boy in 1908. He probably would have been better off staying in the time of Henry VIII. (Especially when you add what we know but Nesbit didn't: in 1908, Richard is just ten years away from the muddy trenches of the First World War.)

In 1908 Nesbit (and other writers, as I'll discuss in future posts) could see the disruption caused by the Industrial Revolution, the pollution of town and countryside, the ongoing misery of the poor. They couldn't see the vast improvement in the lives of everyday people that was going to happen over the next century. One can't blame them for thinking, "This industrialization business was a mistake; people might have been just as poor, sick, and hungry a hundred and fifty years ago, but at least they had 'England's green and pleasant land' in which to live out their miserable lives."

And given that, like most writers in any period, rigorous historical and economic analysis was not their forte, they could even have been forgiven for romanticizing, say, eighteenth century rural life. They would have seen it in terms of John Constable's paintings. The Hay Wain doesn't come with an attached note saying, "Those farm workers are undernourished, subject to injuries through regularly overstressing their bodies, and chronically ill."

I wonder if they would have been so quick to condemn industrial progress if they could have seen a hundred years into the future? If they could have seen the abundance of our society, the wealth available not only in the West but to countries like Japan and India, the reduction of severe poverty worldwide, the incidence of homelessness in England dropping from 10-20% in the mid-nineteenth century to .4% of the population today? If they could have known that as countries become wealthy through industry, they reach a point at which they clean up the pollution that industry created?

And all that leads me to wonder... what is just around the corner, practically under our noses, that we can't see yet? What terrible, horrible, very bad, no good problem in today's society is actually the harbinger of glorious improvements to come?

Ideas?
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