Magic, Good and Bad (2)

[Video: the first 2-1/2 minutes of the 2006 Hogfather mini-series]

A few weeks ago, a post here shared this one’s title. (At the time, I didn’t intend to do a follow-up, so the earlier one wasn’t numbered.) That post considered… well, the point of the fiction in fiction. If the underpinning of what happens in a story is “real” — the laws of physics and so on — then why make up any important details? (Other than special cases like keeping the material non-libelous, of course.) Writers invent not just names but entire casts of characters, family histories, geographies, historical events (both the core facts and the marginalia), languages…

And when you get into the fantasy and science-fiction genres — “speculative fiction,” as they say despite the tautology — well, even the laws of physics go out the window.* History gets re-written. Facts we know now are replaced by other facts we will know only in some particular version of the future. Things turn into other things (or seem to) just because someone waves in their direction with a hand, a wand of miraculous construction, or an infernal machine…

As I said in that first post, I didn’t intend to debate whether the use of impossibilities presented as commonplace was good or bad. I wasn’t trying to make a case for or against fantasy and/or science fiction. And the post drew substantial thoughtful comments from Froog and Marta (which I thought might happen, in both cases). I continued to think about the topic myself, too, since I hadn’t really drawn any conclusions.

And then the Christmas holiday drew near…

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Midweek Music Break: David Byrne and Brian Eno, “Home”

Several of Running After My Hat‘s regular commenthood are overhauling what “home” means to them:

Nance — and Mr. Mature, of course — are caught up in readying their house for a (dearly longed-for) sale. Marta — amongst writing a flash-fiction story every day this month, and competitive skating, and teaching, and the gods know what else — has moved with her family into their first house, with all the attendant packing and unpacking, inspections, signings of documents, painting, arranging and re-arranging, and re-assessment of what counts (and how much). And in a turn almost unimaginable, at least to me — having followed his blog for four years — Brit ex-pat Froog prepares to leave China altogether, bound for… Lithuania? Uruguay? parts unknown (but presumably with no shortage of watering holes)?

From At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson:

Houses are amazingly complex repositories. What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world — whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over — eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house. Wars, famines, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment — they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked into the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint on your walls and the water in your pipes. So the history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.

From Brian Eno, writing on (speaking of 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today album):

This record was born as a dinner conversation. While dining in New York with David and some other friends, I mentioned that I had accumulated a lot of music, which, despite my intentions, I had never formed into songs. David volunteered to give them a try…

Upon starting this project, we quickly realized we were making something like electronic gospel, music in which singing becomes the central event, but whose sonic landscapes are atypical of such vocal-centered tracks.

David Byrne himself adds:

The challenge was more emotional than technical: to write simple, heartfelt tunes without drawing on cliché. The results, in many cases, are uplifting, hopeful, and positive, even though some lyrics describe cars exploding, war, and similarly dark scenarios.

These songs have elements of our previous work — no surprise there — but something new has emerged here as well. Where does the sanguine and heartening tone come from, particularly in these troubled times? …some of my lyrics and melodies were a response to what I sensed lay buried in the music. My task was to bring forth into language what was originally non-verbal. In the end, we have made something together that neither of us could have made on our own.

This particular number, I think, doesn’t fall quite into the “electronic gospel” genre. There’s a nearly martial, rolling-snare-drum effect which plays well behind Byrne’s vocals, and that voice verges on strident. But the lyrics speak of both the universal and the deeply personal meanings of home. Especially when the song is overlaid (as here) by dozens of still photos of dozens of types of houses, it’s easy to imagine an utterly different performance: solo, acoustic, nothing at all electronic — a plucked string fastened at one end in the present day and at the other, deep in history.


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Looking for a Writing Prompt?

Long-time RAMH friend Marta has started a new blog. It’s based on something other writers may have thought, from time to time: I bet in another world I’d be appreciated more than I am in this one…!

Marta’s taken it a step further: writing the blog as if her famous-mirror-counterpart — called simply “M.” — were writing it.

[In the following paragraph, both “M.” and “Marta” are fictional characters. “Marta” may be based on the real Marta, but there are probably points of difference, too.]

The entries so far have described how she, Marta, first learned of the existence of M.: the arrival — obviously through some rupture in the space-time continuum — of a fan letter, to M., in response to the latter’s most recently published title. An interesting twist: M.’s book is not a book which Marta never heard of. It’s from one of Marta’s own manuscripts, which she hasn’t yet shown to anyone. M. has also done usual blog-type posts, given that she’s a blindingly successful novelist of course. In the most recent, she recounts how her editor has helped her shop for a place to live on what appear to be the streets of Greenwich Village. And she’s acquired a stalker.

Marta — the real one — is enlisting interested readers and writers in creating the new blog. She’s called for them to write fan (or other) letters to M., as if they were people who know (of) her in this alternate universe… real letters, preferably handwritten (real-world Marta seems to love all paper artifacts).

To participate, just drop her a line via the comments at that new blog — called Famous in Another Universe, btw — or at her regular place, writing in the water, and she’ll work out the details with you.

And of course, taking part in this project or not, you may enjoy just reading along as it grows. Start here (the post called “The Wormhole and the Envelope”) and just click the “next post” links below each entry.


P.S. I haven’t cleared any of the above with Marta, so for any number of reasons this post may not hang around for long. :)


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Book Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

Over at The Book Book, I’ve posted my recent review. This time around, the subject is Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow, first published in 1996.

Russell seems one of those novelists in the enviable position of writing whatever she wants, irrespective of genre. The Sparrow (and its 1998 sequel, Children of God) are frank science fiction. Since then, she has to my knowledge written no science fiction at all. Instead, she’s written a novel about Jews in World War II-era Italy; one about an unlikely participant in the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference; and, most recently, a Western/mystery about Doc Holliday. I mention this because (among other implications) it shows her to have a wide-ranging mind and an awareness of the importance of history — even in the writing of fiction.

In bare-bones form, The Sparrow‘s plot might be described thusly:

  • We meet aliens.
  • Some very pleasant and some very unpleasant things happen.

But there’s nothing bare-bones about the book. It’s well-researched. It’s well-written. It tugs in multiple directions at once — sympathy, laughter, wonder, horror. It provokes thought as well as sensation. When you turn the last page you may think (as I did): Damn. Now that was a read! It won numerous awards, and sold — continues to sell — quite well.

Yet somehow I’d managed to get through the last 15 years without ever hearing of it, or Russell,until Marta mentioned it and its sequel in an offhand comment back in January (with intriguing follow-up comments both from her and from a/b). Weird.

Anyhow, it’s great. Put aside any qualms you might harbor about science fiction or, for that matter, about theology. Brace yourself for confronting some of those very unpleasant things. And dive in.

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The Quickening Squirrel

Marta was wondering a few days ago about writerly magic numbers: specific quantifiable targets which writers hope to achieve within some given time period. She’s doing NaNoWriMo, so of course over her head looms the magic 50,000-words-in-a-November target. But she asked what other writers might choose to be satisfied with: N pages or words per day, or one complete draft or book by date X, or whatever.

In a long, wool-gathering post back in September, among other things which I scavenged for the point(s) I was making, I mentioned an ambitious project by artist Rowena, a/k/a Warrior Girl/Mama: to create 100 pieces of art in a 100-day block of time. It just knocked me out (it still does) that she managed to pull that off.

Yes, it knocked me out, and made me very happy; although it wasn’t writing but art, it confirmed what I’ve believed for many years now. To wit: To get really comfortable doing something creative, you have to do it every single day. None of this vaporous swoony “Oh, I must wait for inspiration to strike!” nonsense. None of those “But I just have so many things on my mind/distractions to deal with!” excuses. Just do it. Every day.

Turns out someone else took inspiration from Rowena’s experiment: pseudonymous RAMH friend The Querulous Squirrel.

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