Sunday, February 24, 2019

The odalisque and the tech operative

I'm working on a couple of longish blog posts. One is about the necessary adjustments forced on me by increasing age and infirmity, and it may never go up because frankly, the whole subject is just too depressing for words. The other is about Biblical interpretation through the centuries -- or rather, a plea for suggested reading on the topic, because I don't even know where to look for the information I've begun wanting since I started my 2019 project of reading the King James Version from top to bottom.

So, in lieu of serious thought, and just to demonstrate that like Granny Weatherwax I ATN'T DEAD, here's a tiny snippet from A Revolution of Rubies:


I was just apologizing to Sheng for not being able to teleport him home – I’d never been to his apartment – when TheSila showed up and, as was her wont, complicated everything.

“Thalia, dear little pet,” she purred behind me, “aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”

“I hadn’t planned to, no,” I said without turning around. Pretending extreme boredom was one of the few ways I’d found to make the djinn go away.

“Oh, but I insist!” She poured herself around me in a flicker of cold flames. At least she’d chosen to manifest herself in almost-normal guise; apart from the little shivers of flame chasing themselves over her form, she looked like any Oriental odalisque you might encounter in Paris – you know: voluptuous figure spilling out of a skimpy gold-filigreed costume, elaborate henna patterns on much of the exposed skin, huge kohl-rimmed dark eyes.

Okay, so you don’t actually see that many scantily dressed Oriental odalisques in Paris. Sheng was stammering, poised awkwardly between the Company’s training in diplomatic manners and the natural human desire to scream and run.

“TheSila, this is Sheng, a colleague of mine from the embassy,” I said tiredly. “Sheng, meet TheSila, an Indian Ocean djinn. Folks, it’s late, and tomorrow I have to…” rescue Aunt Alesia. Damn. I’d actually forgotten about her for a couple of hours. Now the weight of her problem came crashing down on me again. I wondered whether “darling Daryush” would be understanding about his girlfriend’s loss of a national treasure, or whether my next job was going to be springing Aunt Alesia out of a French jail.

Sheng collected himself enough to bow over the hennaed hand that TheSila extended, but his eyes were showing way too much white. Teleportation and unexpected canine encounters had already taken their toll on his self-possession; clearly he wasn’t up to discussing life with a djinn from the Indian Ocean.

“TheSila and I met off the coast of Kenya this summer,” I said, ruthlessly condensing the multi-chapter detailed version, “and she visited me in Texas afterwards.” And she’d been quite enough of a nuisance there without inviting herself along on this assignment. Silly me, I had thought that leaving her blue glass bottle on the mantelpiece of our condo in Austin would guarantee some privacy in Paris.

The trouble was that I hadn’t gone the traditional route of trapping her in the bottle, luring her in with the powerfully stinky perfumes she favored and then slamming a cork into the opening. No, I’d done her the favor of breaking the bottle somebody else had used to trap her. And then, as a free agent, she’d found a lidless bottle in which to transport herself from East Africa to Austin.

At least that was how I’d thought it worked. Now it seemed that she didn’t require the bottle in order to follow me around the world and interfere with my life. Who knew?

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?

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