Saturday, April 23, 2016

How Small, Personal Biases can Shape Society

I ran across this simulation called "A Parable of the Polygons." In a nutshell, it demonstrates how an integrated society can become increasingly segregated over time if individuals harbor even a small amounts of personal bias towards living near their own kind.

It's fun to play around with the numbers. One thing that's interesting is that once segregation occurs, an elimination of bias doesn't result in greater mixing. I'd love to see a version of this with more "shapes" and where the bias can be manipulated to be different for some "shapes" than others.

While this demonstration focuses on physical proximity, it's possible that something similar could happen with regards to the choices people make about the books they want to read (both with regards to the gender or race of the authors or of the characters therein).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea Trilogy

Shattered Sea Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, published in 2015 by Del Rey.

I've been quiet lately, but I just finished Half a War, the third book in Joe Abercrombie's YA The Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up the first novel in this series, Half a King. I really enjoyed his First Law Trilogy when I read it a couple of years back, in spite of finding a few bits and pieces problematic. I loved the way the author gave each pov character a distinct voice, narrative style, and personality and made me care about people I wouldn't like at all in real life.

I wasn't sure if his YA titles were going to be the same exact thing with teen protagonists, or if they were going to copy the style that dominates YA fantasy nowadays (nothing against it, but it's very different from Abercrombie's writing in some ways).

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The story is very different, but the world building is, if anything, deeper and more internally consistent than what appears in The First Law books and their sequels. The writing style is smoother and a little more consistent across characters, but each character still has their own voice and personality. Unlike a lot of YA fiction these days, the stories are written in limited third (and in past tense), but the narrative is so immersive that it feels as if the story is unfolding as it's read.

As for tone and style, there are fewer "f" bombs than in Abercrombie's adult fiction, but the characters still talk the way you'd expect warriors and sailors to talk. There's no dumbing down or sugarcoating anything just because the story is written with teens in mind. The protagonists have adult responsibilities thrust upon them (as one would expect in a war-torn, pre-industrial society), and they rise to the occasion convincingly without coming off as adults in teenagers' bodies.

One constraint placed on YA fantasy is the need to keep the story within a limited scope or time frame so the protagonists don't "age out" of the demographic as an epic tale or series unfolds. Abercrombie deals with this issue by changing viewpoint (pov) characters with each book. Half the World, takes place a few years later and follows two different viewpoint protagonists (not Yarvi, who was the protagonist in Half a King). Book three took place three years (more or less) after book two, and has three new and different pov characters.

This may be a bit frustrating to readers who prefer to stick with the same pov character/characters for an entire series, but in each case, the protagonists from the previous book appears as important secondary characters in the subsequent ones. The development of Yarvi's character across the series, as seen through the eyes of new povs, was particularly intriguing.

One thing that Abercrombie received some criticism for in his First Law trilogy was his treatment of women and the prevalence of rape and female victimhood as a plot element. Out of six pov characters in First Law, only one was female, and she was possibly the least developed of the bunch in terms of motivations and backstory. It wasn't a deal breaker for me, but it did bother me in a couple of places.

This was far less of an issue in the Shattered Sea Trilogy. While book one was more male-centric (only one character, who was male, had pov time), books two and three had well-developed female pov characters. The fantasy world portrayed wasn't a feminist utopia by any stretch, but women played an important role in the culture and society and all the female characters, viewpoint and secondary, had well-developed personalities, goals, and agency.

Another characteristic of this trilogy is that I found each book better than the one before it. I liked Half a King, really liked Half the World, and couldn't put Half a War down. The ending was satisfying and stand alone, but there's enough going on in this world that I'd be happy to read another book or series set in it if the author decided to write one. I'd love to learn more about who those "Elves" really were, though the narrative provided enough hints about their cities and artifacts for me to formulate some hypotheses of my own.

I recommend it to anyone who likes gritty, sword-and-sorcery style fantasy set in a low-magic world, centered around a culture that feels vaguely Norse. The writing is tight but full of voice, the pacing fast, the emotions intense, and the characters are flawed human beings who are nonetheless endearing.

Don't read below here if you don't want mild, non-specific spoilers/content warnings.

Things that may be issues for some readers: the stories contain a fair amount of gore, battle scenes with descriptions of injuries and death, slavery, some swearing, consensual sex that is less graphic than in the First Law trilogy (and endearingly awkward enough to remind us that the characters are teens), death of major characters, references to torture and mistreatment of prisoners. I don't remember rape being depicted or mentioned overtly in the story.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Pervasive Myth of the Chastity Belt

I remember learning about these devices in my European history class in high school. They were presented as lurid examples of how horrible it was to be a woman in the middle ages. People referenced them from time to time in articles or discussion, and their existence were pretty firmly in the camp of things "everyone knew" to be true. But something always bothered me about those stories: they didn't seem like something that could be terribly effective, unless they were constructed in a way that would make their wearer likely to succumb to a nasty infection.

Belt claimed to be from 16th-17th century

Of course, my misgivings turned out to be correct. There's little evidence that medieval and Early-Modern references to the things were anything but metaphors or jokes, and the "real" ones that exist seem to date no earlier than the 18th or 19th centuries, when they were probably created as fakes to put in "medieval torture museums," or perhaps as sexual novelty items.

Here's some reading on the history of this pervasive myth.

Add this to the long list of things people "know" about the middle ages that just ain't true. As the old adage goes, a lie makes it around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

BathRuby 2016 - The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequality by Jane...

This is a fascinating video that touches on things I've noticed (as someone who teaches science at a college).

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fantasy Novels I've Read Recently

We're already almost a quarter of a way through 2016, so I wanted to list some of the books I've read and enjoyed over the past two months or so. The last two, Updraft and Uprooted, were published in 2015 and are eligible for the 2016 Hugo Awards. If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos this year (the March 31 deadline is rapidly approaching), I recommend you give these a read if you haven't already. I'd never tell anyone else what they should like, but I think both of these books are Hugo Worthy. 

The other titles on this list are excellent too, and I strongly recommend them.

Cover by Todd Lockwood
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Tor 2013. I put off reading this book, because I thought it was going to be a fake reference book or something, but it's actually a delightful story, written memoir style, about Isabel, a woman living in a quasi-Victorian world that is very similar to our own, except that it has dragons. Fantasy elements are slight, and the dragons portrayed are very naturalistic--intelligent animals. The book starts with a the protagonist's childhood memories of dissecting a dead dove (and getting punished for it) and collecting specimens, and nearly being killed by a creature called a "wolf drake."

After Isabel marries a man with similar interests, she manages to get them a berth on a research trip to a mountainous country to study a breed of dragons called "rock wyrms." The narration is alive with voice and the protagonist's wry wit, and the tale kept me riveted until the end. I've just read the sequel, entitled The Tropic of Serpents, and it's every bit as good. These books definitely a change of pace from the style of epic fantasy I usually prefer, but I enjoyed them thoroughly and plan on reading the rest of the books in this series.

Cover by John Jude Palencar
Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough. Ace books, 2011. Aral, the protagonist, is a former assassin priest of a goddess of justice who has been murdered by her fellow deities. Robbed of both faith and identity, he's a tattered remnant of his former self who works as a blade for hire between bouts of drinking. The only thing keeping him sane is Tris, his shadow-dragon familiar. I'm a sucker for "hot mess" characters and for stories with animal companions and magical familiars, so this premise attracted my interest. The author's wonderful deconstruction of the "trouble walked in wearing a red dress" trope in the opening scene drew me in.

The book was entertaining, cleanly written, and well paced, and I liked the pov character's voice. If there's a flaw, it's that the author was a bit light on environmental and character detail for my tastes. I tend to favor leanness here, but I couldn't really visualize the kinds of clothes they were wearing, the style of architecture, and the appearance, coloring, racial characteristics of the characters, so my mind kept defaulting to "pseudo-medieval, European with everyone white," but I don't know if this was the author's intent. It's a small thing, though. This is the first book in a series, and I look forward to reading the next one soon.

Cover by Kris Kamikakushi
"Hunting Monsters" by S.L. Huang. Book Smugglers Publishing 2014. This is a short story, published as a stand alone. It's available as an e-book on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online. Set in a fairy tale world (incorporating elements from "Little Red Riding Hood," "Beauty and the Beast" and other classic tales), this is a wonderful example of how a good writer can layer world building and history into a short story. Like many good fairy tale protagonists, the main character lives in a small cabin in the woods. On her fifteenth birthday, her mother is arrested for the murder of a grundwirgen, creatures that resemble beasts but are people in the eyes of the law.

The writing in this story is very good. I've always had a weakness for retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, and this one was a page turner.

Cover by Steven Martiniere
Updraft by Fran Wilde. Tor Books, 2015. This has to be one of the most unique speculative fiction settings I've ever encountered. Set in a world where people live in bone towers (which appear to grow from somewhere below the clouds) and fly on silk wings, it follows Kirit, a protagonist who wants to become a trader like her mother, but is manipulated into becoming one of the singers who protects her city safe from attacks by invisible predators.

As a singer in training, Kirit stumbles across multiple layers of intrigue and discovers a truth that could change her world forever. This story is fascinating and well written. If it has a fault, its that the alien setting and culture, along with the highly immersive approach to world building (it's told in a very "here and now" style of first person with not an info dump in sight) makes it hard to understand and relate to the characters' motives at times. This may be a fault in me as a reader and not the book itself, however, and I found myself increasingly pulled in as I read. I look forward to the sequel, which is coming out later this year.

Cover by Scott McKowen
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey books, 2015. This story draws from Polish fairy tales the author remembers from her childhood, and it's beautifully written. Set in a village where a 17-year-old girl is taken every ten years by the wizard who protects it from encroachment by a cursed wood, the story has a strong female protagonist who is driven by her love for her best friend. The world is vividly drawn and simultaneously familiar and relatable yet fresh with many unexpected twists. I liked the way the author was able to create a sense of menace while remaining basically optimistic about human nature. Kept me guessing until the end.

This is a stand alone-novel, something that's probably too rare in fantasy. I love series and I understand why writers and readers of fantasy like sweeping epics and want to return to their favorite worlds for tale after tale, but it's also pleasant to be able to lose oneself in a book and to reach the end without feeling like there are plot threads that still need to be tied off.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fantasy Novels Without War

Last time, I wrote about the popularity of war as a plot element in fantasy, but there are a number excellent novels that break with this tradition.

Before I can discuss this further, however, I have to define what I mean by military plot elements. This is important, because different readers may draw the line in different places, or differ in what they see as militaristic. I mentioned last time that a friend and I disagree about whether Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books are, at their heart, military stories, because I see the combat between the dragons and the thread as an "against nature" sort of context, but he has a point when he says that the dragon weyrs have many of the characteristics of a military, such as support via a system of tithes and a hierarchical rank structure.

For this reason, I've attempted to separate these ostensibly non-military fantasy novels into two broad categories: books where combat itself plays no significant role in the plot at all, and books where there are skirmishes and armed conflict at times, but it exists in a context that is personal or disorganized. In both cases, any "action," such that it is, is either incidental or a consequence of other plot elements, not what drives the main plot overall.
Original paperback edition of The Last Unicorn.
Cover art by Gervasio Gallardo

One fantasy classic I can think of that is an example of the first kind of story is Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (Viking Press, 1968). This stand-alone story is a well-beloved tale about a unicorn who suddenly realizes that she is the last of her kind and must find her missing brethren.

Another non-military fantasy I read quite recently is Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor (Tor Books, 2014). This is a fantasy of manners about mixed-race prince, raised away from court, who unexpectedly ascends the throne of Elfland and must learn to hold his own in the backstabbing world of politics.

Barbara Hambley's Stranger at The Wedding (Del Rey, 1994) is another story that could be described as a fantasy of manners. Its protagonist is Kyra, a young wizard who must crash her sister's wedding and surreptitiously use her meager assortment of spells to disrupt the nuptials and save her sister's life.

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (originally published by Eyre and Spottiswoode between 1948-1959) is about as non-military as a fantasy story can be. This is a gothic fantasy, one that's actually lacking in magical elements, with a plot that centers around machinations and jostling for position within a family. The characters don't even step outside their castle until the third book.

Mary Robinette Kowal's regency-style Glamourist History series (published by Tor books between 2010-2015) are set in a Regency-era world that is reminiscent of Jane Austin's stories, but one where ladies of quality are expected to be magicians.

Marie Brennan's Lady Trent novels (Tor books 2014, 2015) take place in a fictitious world with very Victorian sensibilities and follows the adventures of a "lady naturalist" who becomes her country's most celebrated expert on dragons.

Although the above novels are very different, they do share two things--little to no combat or "action" in the sense that many fantasy readers mean the term, and plotting where the stakes are highly personal, even if a deeper conspiracy is discovered as the story unfolds.

The second group of novels are more violent than the previous ones, and may contain some skirmishes and bloodshed, but larger-scale military conflicts don't drive the plot in any meaningful way.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. (BBC Books, 1996). Based on the TV show by the same name that he co-wrote with Lenny Henry. Gaiman's stories get emotionally intense, violent and scary at times, but armies, pitched battle, and military campaigns aren't factors.

The Earthsea cycle by Ursula K Le Guin (first volumes published in 1968 by Parnassus Press) are a classic high fantasy where the stakes start out personal and expand until Ged and his companions save the world from the damage caused by magic. A raid on the protagonist's home village serves as plot catalyst at the beginning, but after that, there's little combat aside from one-on-one wizard's duels.

Patrick Rothfuss's The name of the Wind (Penguin Group, 2007) has a nasty fight with a bunch of giant spiders in the opening chapter, and a battle with a giant lizard near the end, but military engagements are notably absent. As of the end of the second book in the series, however, it appears that a larger-scale armed conflict is on the horizon.

The Harry Potter Novels by JK Rowling (Scholastic Books, 1997-2007) have plenty of physical conflict, and no few deaths, throughout the series. But there really isn't anything that could be described as a battle until the end of the last book. And that didn't take place in any kind of military context.

Fran Wilde's Updraft (Tor, 2015) is set in a world where people live in bone towers and fly with silk wings. While one-one-one combat between characters is important, the antagonists in her world resemble a secret police force, not an army.

The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch (Bantam Spectra, 2006-present) is filled with cloak and dagger and intrigue aplenty, along with some good old fashioned swashbuckling action, but as of the latest installment, the focus hasn't been on military conflicts.

I could keep listing examples, but if I did, I'd be writing all night. Many of Terry Pratchett's satirical Discworld novels focused on fantasy elements besides war (it really depended on which tropes he was taking a poke at). Same for many books by Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley. And while Mercedes Lackey's Velgarth books usually contained a battle, and her heralds represented an elite group of officers, her Elemental Masters novels are simply fairy tale retellings that are, at their hearts, love stories.

So even though the fantasy genre (especially  fantasy taking place in secondary worlds) has the reputation for plots that center around the mustering of armies and the fighting of epic battles, there are a number of authors who have created individual novels, even series, where the plots are driven by relationships, intrigue, smaller-scale conflicts, personal goals, and political machinations. While many of these stories have stakes that are intensely personal, some do end up impacting the fate of entire kingdoms or worlds.

The take home message is that fantasy is a diverse genre with ample room for character driven stories that encompass a broad range of topics.

I know I've only scratched the surface here and have left out a number of great examples. Feel free to comment with more titles.