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ursulav

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Reading the latest China Mieville anthology, "Looking for Jake."

As is usual for his work, it wanders between extremes of "Eh, I guess. Well written, though," (like "Iron Council") and "Oh sweet blithering Christ, why didn't *I* think of that?!" (Like "Perdido Street Station and "The Scar")

One of his short stories is a fabulous one about feral streets that move between cities, fighting with each other, occasionally mating and producing rogue alleys. God! Why didn't I ever think about wild streets?

Everybody gets the "crap I wish I'd thought of that!" thing if you're in a creative field, I imagine, it's one of those buttons wired into our brains, but Mieville's writing doesn't so much push that button for me as take a sledgehammer to it until the plastic shatters. I think it's because he has the absolute disregard for conventional plausibility that I strive for, and he does it without ever once blinking, which I think is the trick. People will accept almost any weird thing, as long as its A) kinda neat and B) you never admit for a minute that it's completely absurd. You start "Perdido Street Station" with a beetle-headed woman, and you immediately think "I dunno, I'm not gonna suspend my disbelief for THAT, and by about twenty pages in, you realized that the author doesn't apparently care if you do or not. There is no effort spent to tease you into letting down your guard with careful rationalizations of the history of the noble talking whatsits, all the standard fantasy stuff to make sure that you're not rolling your eyes or weirded out or troubled by the strangeness of it. Be troubled! This is troubling shit. You're either seduced by the fabulous weirdness of it all, or you can get bent. It's fantasy that's actually fantastical--not in the sense that anything gets used as a deus ex machina, (terribly far from it!) but in the sense that the world is just full of weird stuff. It's Alice in Wonderland meets Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" meets hell. And it doesn't blink.

And now, to trot out a variant one of my favorite rants, god, I wish more people would do that. God, I wish *I* would do that. All the infinite possibilities of fantasy, and instead we get ten thousand rehashes of a quasi-Western European culture with elves, fairies and telepathic wolves, and magic systems so stratified and carefully explained, so that nobody ever gets the idea that the author is using magic as an excuse for stuff, that they have all the exuberant joy of a rectal exam. Given an infinite canvas of potential oddity, we spend our time recreating Pern, Valdemar, and Middle-Earth with different hats. Strange is like a lost art. Trying to think of books that are genuinely bizarre and fantastical gets me the aforementioned Mieville, Clive Barker's Abarat, King and Straub's "The Talisman," maybe Gormenghast, to a lesser extent Gaiman's "Neverwhere"...and...um...some of the fantasy bits in Tad William's "Otherland" which was science fiction anyway. Stories where the laws of physics were different, where the world is a gigantic house, or where an archipelago was made of islands of different times of day. Whereas if I made a stack in my living room of books where a young girl bonds telepathically to a horse/dragon/wolf/tiger in a quasi-European society, the fall from the top would probably break my neck.

And the thing is, I'm so totally guilty of this. I think that's why it pisses me off--it's our own flaws that aggravate us most in others. Given the infinity of fantasy, what did my Obligatory Fantasy Novel consist of? Elves and furries. (I take small comfort that there are no telepathic wolves anywhere.) Digger's a little better--at least we have one-way holes and shadow eaters and thank god, vampire squash--but it's still fundamentally a medivael society with some weird bits. It is not premised on the absolutely strange.

Well, it's pretty understandable. Within most of us, there is an internal censor. I don't know if we're born with it, or if it gets nailed into our heads as children or what. And when you think of something silly, this censor says "That's dumb," or "That wouldn't work." In many ways, this is a very useful thing--it's good to have something in your head that is fully aware that drinking lye is bad and when you jump off the roof, you'll break your legs.* Unfortunately, it tends to jump up and say this about a lot of things, and the most cruel is probably "People will think this is dumb," and "People will think you don't know what you're doing."

The first time you tell this censor to piss off and paint something weird, it's scary and exhilarating, and you expect to be slapped down immediately by the viewers. And of course, sometimes you are, and that ends the matter. But sometimes you get encouragement instead, and then the next time you're willing to go a little farther into silliness, and after awhile of this, you're painting lemonlopes and giant bleeding turnips. Each time, you make a little bit more headway. Sometimes he pops up again in a direction you don't expect, though, so it's sort of halfway between wrestling with an angel and a game of mental whack-a-mole. (Somehow, I suspect whack-an-angel would be a huge hit in certain quarters.)

I think, sometimes, it's that unblinking and unself-conscious strangeness that I really want to achieve--in art, in writing, whatever. Strangeness that doesn't have to justify itself. I am delighted to write about the behavior of the wild lemonlope, but I am not willing to sit down each time and try to explain how Bob the Magic Horticulturalist got an impala drunk and impregnated it with a lemon wedge and did the Rite of Unspeakable Vegetables to create the lemonlope species (except for a joke, because the Rite of Unspeakable Vegetables sounds pretty funny.) But a painful explanation each time smacks of justification, of trying to say "See! See! It's too weird to stand on it's own, but I can rationalize it and it'll be okay!" I don't want that. I want an unblinking oddity. I want strangenesses that simply exist, in the way that reality exists. I may go and read about squirrel botflies, and be fascinated, but at no point does anybody have to explain how the botflies got here, or why I should accept the botflies are plausible, or explain the rules of botflydom so that reality doesn't have the option of using a botfly as an easy plot device. It's enough that they exist, here's what they do. I do not get the feeling that the author is afraid I won't believe in botflies. They're there whether I want to believe in them or not.

And now, having rambled incoherently for much too long, I will go back to editing my tale of furries and elves, and I will refrain as best I can from a sudden overhaul to inject strangeness, because it would be cruel to my editor, and serve no purpose except to appease my sense of creative guilt. And nobody wants that.

But the next time I write a novel, goddamnit, it's gonna be strange.


*And don't give me any rot about being able to fly if you really believed in it, because if I wanted to be smothered in cheese, I'd have swan-dived into one of the big cheddar vats in Tillamook when I took that tour.

Speaking as a professional fantasy writer, I applaud madly.

Only that's not speaking. Oops.

Weirdness and the resistance to weirdness...oh, where to begin? I love weirdness. I like to write weirdness. I think there should be a special hell for those who insist that I spend 20 pages explaining exactly how X works, especially if it's a flash-fic piece. I mean, just take the talking wombat for granted, already, sheesh. Dragons just *are* huge batteries..what did you *think* all that gold and silver was for? C'mon. And so forth.

I love Perdido Street Station, too, but you probably guessed.

I love that sort of fantasy you're talking about, where the weird is just there and you dont' need to explain the whys and wherefores.* Have you read Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World? It had a lot of the good stuff for me.



* I think writers and filmmakers spend too long justifying things. I mean, really, that movie that had dragons fighting attack helicopters? You can't explain it plausibly. Don't bother. The explanation is using up valuable screen time that could be devoted to explosions.

You're not talking about Reign of Fire, are you?

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
I tried to read Iron Council, and just couldn't get into it. It seemed well concieved and the writing was lovely, but... I just didn't give a damn about those people, for some reason.

...I am totally digging that idea of wild streets though.

I'm assuming you've read The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop? If not, get your butt out there and read it, because it's got what you're looking for. One of the most bizarre and beautifully grotesque things I have ever laid eyes on. And Gwynn literally walked out of my head, it was creepy as hell. (I have a character whose personality and appearance is just too much like Gwynn for comfort. I blame Carl Jung.)

Your icon reminds me of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes</a>. o..o

This is exactly how I felt when I first read Imajica. If I could write worth a damn, that's the sort of thing I'd like to be able to write...

... but writing is spectacularly *not* my forte.

*laugh* My problem with Imajica was that there was all this cool shit...wedged between agonizing pages of characters I didn't like and plot twists I didn't care about. Reading it was like panning for gold. "OH! Great bit! Now another two hours of slogging through gravel..."

I think, sometimes, it's that unblinking and unself-conscious strangeness that I really want to achieve--in art, in writing, whatever. Strangeness that doesn't have to justify itself. [Because] a painful explanation each time smacks of justification, of trying to say "See! See! It's too weird to stand on it's own, but I can rationalize it and it'll be okay!" I don't want that. I want an unblinking oddity. I want strangenesses that simply exist, in the way that reality exists.

Sounds like hitherbydragons to me, except that unlike RSB, you have a native language. (Okay, she has a native language, but it can't be spoken, and it can only be written with a good 3D graphics program.)

Oh yes. hitherbydragons is exactly Ursula's cup of tea. I've known her for a decade (Hitherby, not Ursula) and I don't know why it never struck me to point her (Ursula, not Hitherby) her (Hitherby, not Ursula) way.

:)

hm, I don't know. Strangeness is good, but I also like explanations.
I love Discworld for explaining the problems trolls have with sunlight/heat, and especially the elves and iron problem.
I guess it's completely random. Making up a reason for Lemonlopes seems superfluous. Explaining how a tuber house is built is awesome, but I don't find myself wondering "WHY the hell do they build houses from root vegetables? And how do they grow them so big?"
Reminds me of my reaction to Jasper Fforde's Eyre Affair. I accepted without thinking that someone could travel through time, but the thought of people catching meteorites in their hands seemed incredibly stupid. Some things work in my brain, some don't.

*grin* Well, I love Discworld myself, but it's almost less fantasy for fantasy's sake, and more social commentary. The iron thing...I dunno, the "love of iron" seemed almost more lyrical than an effort to rationalize stuff away.

I think we ALL look forward to that next novel now. I do.

This post of yours reminds me of the writer Kurt Vonnegut. Ever read any of his stuff? It's a strange breed of Science Fiction, dealing with oddly built aliens and inexplicable time travel (in explaining the time travel, the reader is essentially told that "it just happens. deal with it")
Though obviously a matter of taste, I've always seen his books as really good, like, the best... But it's not just this unique strageness. The books are written well, and that's probably the most important part.
I'd read a book about a war between telepathic unicorns and elves, and probably enjoy it, if it was written well. But the appeal of a three-headed rhino-lobster hybrid only lasts so long if you can't learn to love it.

For what it's worth, I get a sense of that feeling from the snippets of text you put in decriptions of your paintings in deviant-art.

In fact, those snippets are entirely why I went from zero to drooling-fangirl on your behalf in about half an hour.

(I think my first was Saddle Guinea)

Actually, I think that's what made me fall in love with your work ages ago, and consequently push it on all of my friends. The whole strangeness of things that just have to be accepted. I love it. I try to do it, but it always feels like I'm trying, y'know, and that just ruins the whole thing.

Since people seem to be suggesting books, there's one called Einstein's Dreams that I read last quarter. It's...well, it's about different ways time could work, and it's really bizarre, but it makes sense. If y'don't think about it too hard. But it's pretty intresting.

I have this problem in my writing as well, as an innate result of my strength in seeing the connections between things. (My response to the Moria orcs in Lord of the Rings was "what do they eat?") I mentally forge this sort of web around everything I imagine, from the basic strangeness which I come up with, and build on that until it is completely and logically enmeshed in a world which supports its existence properly.

That's good for creating whole worlds off a simple idea ("What if Purgatory was an office building, and the people in Purgatory worked as the Celestial Bureaucracy?"), but essentially terrible for maintaining that sort of "wow that's amazing" sense that keeps the interest of readers... or, even, myself.

As a result, I tend to wind up with perfectly-coherent universes that I'm bored with and don't want to write about... because I already know about everything in them. I've mentally-composed everything from the ground cover foliage to the metaphysical basis of an angel's coexistence in the physical plane, and actually working in that world bores the crap out of me because no matter how mystical that fountain is to the reader I can tell you exactly how and why it works, as well as the dimensions and the architect who fought the city council to get it built. Forget the shimmering lights and singing disembodied voices, it's as commonplace to me as the Empire State Building is to a New Yorker.

And that, I think, is why I never get past an intro on most of my stories. I get the intro written, get into the world, explore it to begin writing about it "properly" with all the bits and pieces properly-aligned in a believable order... and then sit there, look around, and go "eh, this isn't nearly as captivating as I thought it'd be when I arrived" before skipping off to look into another universe.

I have to take conscious effort to force myself to keep things unexplained. I have "Tolkein syndrome," as one of my friends put it - I want to talk about everything, from the chair to the tapestry to the lineage of the king in the land this story doesn't go to, and that doesn't do crap to make the plot interesting. It's why I've basically gone to writing RPG sourcebooks - if I can flesh out a world so much that it resembles an encyclopedia, I might as well make an encyclopedia and just call it a day there.

Still annoying, though.

And that, I think, is why I never get past an intro on most of my stories. I get the intro written, get into the world, explore it to begin writing about it "properly" with all the bits and pieces properly-aligned in a believable order... and then sit there, look around, and go "eh, this isn't nearly as captivating as I thought it'd be when I arrived" before skipping off to look into another universe.

I know exactly how that process works, believe me.

magic systems so stratified and carefully explained, so that nobody ever gets the idea that the author is using magic as an excuse for stuff, that they have all the exuberant joy of a rectal exam

Just to be contrarian, I am currently working on a novel one of the central elements of which is what happens to a complex, stratified, carefully worked out and logical magic system in a secondary world when the person who falls into it from our world and starts playing with it is an overcaffeinated systems programmer with a hacker mentality; to that kind of mindset, someone telling you the rules is a positive invitation to exuberant joy and general chaotic invention. [ It also, come to think of it, has whacking angels in. In the Al Pacino sense of "whacking." ] For suspension of disbelief to work for me, at a certain level there has to be a plausible underlying structure, even if none of the characters know about it, even if it's non-obvious to the reader, even if it's nothing at all like the purely rational [ such as the underlying structures in A Fish Dinner in Memison, which I really should read again before actually trying to say anything about ].

That said, The Talisman is one of my favourite novels, I love Gormenghast, and I am in awe of Mieville's imagination though would probably enjoy his books more were there less of a feeling that his political position wants me hanging from a lamp-post. I am in two minds about whether Bas-Lag holds together enough to work for me - have not yet read The Iron Council, and the hints about the underlying cosmology in The Scar were tantalisingly almost enough.

The "carefully worked-out, stratified and logical magic system meets programmer" thing's been done, in at least passable fashion, in Rick Cook's Wizard's Bane et seq.

For weirdness-ish-ness in fantasy of another kind, there's Charles Stross (a.k.a. autopope)'s The Family Trade and The Hidden Family, which is a "modern Earth person thrown headlong into fantasyland" thing, but without the fluffy telepathic unicorns and with real cutthroat feudal politicking, (at least so far) well-thought out implications of crossworld trade given certain limiting factors, and showing all the things that sucked in Ye Olden Mediæval Tymes. I am, personally, eagerly looking forward to the next part, The Clan Corporate (Charlie's mentioned the phrase "masticated brains" in connection to it...)

sounds like a cry for more surreal fantasy, i concur
i think we were once all good at this as kids, nothing needed explaining really

for an interesting look at internal censors, have you bychance played the game Psychonauts?

Oooh, yet another bit of succulent UrsulaV-branded brainfood. :D I don't know if I ever stopped to drop that little word for you, but, uh, seriously: THANKS.

Speaking as someone with more writing velleities than actual talent to pull them off, I wonder if the general lack of gratuitous weirdness in modern fantasy isn't simply that it's HARD. First you need to actually come up with an interesting bit of weirdness. I'm sure it comes naturally to some. Not to everyone, though. And then, you need to make it work seamlessly, and since there is no cultural referential system to lean against, you're on your own. I mean, if you're talking about unicorns, you just say 'unicorn' and the pristine slender maiden-biased one-horned beasties will just leap to everyone's mind. If you're talking about, uh... say, some creatures that people remember meeting but never ever actually meet, you're on your own to make it work. 'Unblinking' really is a lot of work. And more than a bit talent too, I'll wager. :)

Everyone doesn't automatically think pristine, slender, and maiden-biased when they hear the word "unicorn." However, with a few details, they recognize what kind of unicorn is being talked about because that version is very common. That still leaves the question of does it have a beard, a lion's tail, colven hooves, what material the horn is made of, what magical powers it has...

My point being that some people might find it easier to start from stratch than scrape out something new from other people's expectations. Working against the grain instead of inventing wood. :)

Commentary and recommendation...

(Anonymous)
I really like weird, completely original fantasy, but I also have a soft spot for the Generic Tolkienesque Setting (but more with the Elves, and not so much with the telepathic wolves, although your Black Dogs really made me appreciate furries). I like reading new, well-written takes on it, and I like roleplaying in it, for the same reason that I like fanfiction - I enjoy derivative works which take familiar source material and flesh it out, and make it better, or at least slightly different in a new and interesting way. Mind you, I have read lots of fantasy which "reinvents" Tolkien in exactly the same cliched, tepid, boring way as a million previous attempts. This is possibly why I'm more of a science fiction person. I don't want to read fanfiction within the same narrow genre *all the time*.

And the recommendation: have you read the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss? It's technically science fiction, but it reads like fantasy because it follows a civilisation from a vaguely ice age era to something resembling the 18th century (with gaps in between). There are humans, and a scattering of more primitive human-like races, and savage, intelligent goat-men who never die naturally (they just shrivel up into ancient keratinous blobs which are dutifully carried around and tended by their descendants, who can commune with them using the special goat-man mind-meld), and angry human ancestors who berate their living descendants, and a binary star system which causes the world to have a great cycle of seasons which lasts hundreds of years as well as the usual minor year with is seasonal fluctuations, and adventure, and wars, and startling scientific discoveries, and cool biology, and mystical things which are actually supernatural and not fully explained, and stuff. I definitely file it under "weird original setting".

Apparently you either love these books or you hate them. Personally I found the first chapter of the first book rather boring, but after that I couldn't put them down.

Re: Commentary and recommendation...

(Anonymous)
And I didn't actually mean not to sign my name; I'm just a doofus. I am Confluence, and I am a long-time lurker fan. I have a print of the Sewer Mermaid on my bedroom wall. :)