Tuesday, May 29, 2012

For Want of a Moon, or Why Do So Many Writers Mess Up the Phases of the Moon?

Science fiction novelists, of course, are obliged to create worlds where the universe the stories take place in follows the known laws of physics and they are expected to provide reasonable plausible explanations for deviations from these rules. Of course, they do not always do so rigorously. Desert planets and ice planets abound in SF, and it is hard to know where the breathable atmospheres come from on these worlds, since free oxygen is produced by plants and phytoplankton via photosynthesis (or their alien equivalents), which are largely absent from these worlds. In any case, one of the fun things about fantasy is that you can create a world that does not obey the laws of physics if you so choose. If you, for aesthetic reasons, want to set your story in a world with floating chunks of rocks, a pink sky and three purple moons, then you can do so.

However, many writers of high fantasy, in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, elect to set their stories in worlds that are a parallel Earth, the Earth of a bygone age, or a world that is essentially Earthlike in that it is round, goes around its sun approximately once a year, is populated by humans and familiar animals (and perhaps a few fantastical beings or creatures familiar from human mythology), is approximately 3/4 ocean and 1/4 land and where the laws of physics seem to hold sway, with some exceptions made for whatever magic system operates in the world. These types of fantasy worlds are generally expected to conform somewhat to the norms and expectations that exist on Earth with regards to weather, seasons, heavenly bodies and so forth. For the most part they do, though a writer has more latitude with this than a writer of hard SF does.

Most of the time, these worlds possess a single moon of similar size and period to ours. I can't think, off the top of my head, of a traditional high fantasy novel where the world lacked a moon, and I've run across very few that had more than one moon. In addition to being an inspiration to poets and lovers, our moon has very likely influenced the evolution of many life forms, has modulated our axial tilt (thus producing less severe climactic fluctuations on both large and small time scales than we might experience if moonless), and of course its gravitational tug of war with the sun produces a tidal cycle that is much more intense than what would exist with only the sun's gravity tugging on the earth's oceans.

Many writers of fantasy (and writers of "real world" fiction as well) seem to be completely unaware that the moon does not usually rise when the sun goes down and set when the sun comes up. This has always amazed me, since it is often quite possible to look up in the sky in the middle of the day and see the moon (this is particularly easy to do when the moon is in its first or third quarter). The only time the moon actually rises at sunset and sets at sunrise is the one day (out of approximately 29) that it is full. When the moon is new, it actually rises at sunrise and sets at sunset. It's up there, but since the entire surface that faces the Earth is facing away from the sun, we can't see it (except on the rare occasion that it passes directly between the Sun and the Earth and causes a solar eclipse). When the moon is at "first quarter," it rises at noon and sets at approximate midnight (of course, time zones and locales differ in how closely local midnight coincides with the true midpoint between sunrise and sunset). When it enters its "last quarter," it will rise at approximately midnight and set at approximately noon. Each night of its cycle, the moon rises and sets a little later.

I am not sure why so many writers mess this up. Perhaps it's because people living in the modern world just don't spend that much time sky watching, so they really don't notice that the moon is not usually visible at the times of the evening when they are out and about. Or maybe it's just due to the romantic idea that the moon is to the night what the sun is to the day. Writers will frequently have their characters "know" that dawn is near because the moon is setting, for instance--never mind that the setting moon in question is a slender crescent. Perhaps they do it this way because they think it would be tedious to have their characters acknowledge the phase of the moon and use their knowledge of its current position to estimate time. I'm not sure why it is especially tedious to say, "The first quarter moon had set hours ago, so Bob knew that dawn was near." In fact, the presence or absence of the moon for all or part of the night could be used as a plot device. For instance, a spy might choose to time his foray into enemy territory to coincide with a time in the lunar cycle when the moon will be absent for all or most of the night.

Now a fantasy world could ostensibly be a flat world (as was C.S. Lewis's Narnia) where the moon and sun both make a daily circuit. In such a setting, you could argue that the moon's phases (if present) would be caused something other than the percentage of the moon's Earth-facing surface that is currently facing the sun. And if the moon of your world is actually the moon goddess's chariot being driven across the night sky, the same is true. But if your tale takes place on a round world that goes around its sun and which has a moon that is a celestial body that circles the world in the same direction and at a similar speed, then its phases will be identical to what we see on Earth. There would be no way for a crescent moon to be rising at dusk and setting at dawn.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Review: Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman

I thought I'd do something a little different this week and review a science fiction novel I read for the first time a little more than ten years ago. Halfway Human is set in the distant future--a future where people travel via devices called 'wayports' and the human race is so widely scattered throughout the galaxy that some populations have been isolated from the rest of the species for long enough that they have evolved (or been genetically manipulated) into something that the rest of humanity regards as  'aliens.'

It is the story of a xenoanthropologist named Valarie Entrada, who is asked to study Tedla, an alien human who has unexpectedly turned up in an alley. Tedla is suicidal and all but incoherent at first, and is something that is completely unknown to science--a completely genderless human.

Val takes Tedla home and helps it to recuperate, and she gradually learns its story. On Tedla's home world, humans come in two forms: gendered people and sexless 'blands.' Blands are treated as a dull-witted slave caste and have no rights or status. The story revolves around the trust and friendship that slowly grows between Valarie and Tedla and the gradual emergence of Tedla's strange and tragic story. Ultimately, the reader will learn of Tedla's reasons for fleeing its homeworld.

This book flows well and the author did a good job of handling the shifts in point of view and voice between Val and Tedla. The characters and their responses are believable and well drawn, from the behavior of the blands in slavery to the relationship between Val and her dissertation advisor. I liked the fact that, even without going into a huge amount of detail about their pasts, she managed to portray even some of the more minor characters as complex and multidimensional.

This was, I believe, Gilman's first published novel (unless she has written under a different name), and I read it for the first time two or three years after it came out. I remember being quite frustrated that there was nothing else for me to read by this author. I re-read the book a few years later and was disappointed to discover that it was still the only published novel by this author. But when I recently pulled this book from my shelves with the intent of re-reading it yet again, I did a little research and discovered that she has written some novellas in recent years and that two new novels (Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles) have come out just this year. If the character and societies in her newer works are as well-drawn as the ones in her debut novel, they should be well worth reading.

One of the frustrations of discovering a brand new author shortly after he or she has written a first novel is the waiting period that one must go through to read more by the same writer. Even when a first work is a runaway commercial success, one usually has to wait a year or more before another novel is published. When a first novel is only modestly successful, the author is obviously not going to be able to write full time, and he or she may have as much, or more, trouble finding a publisher for subsequent works as for the first one. I suspect that in Gilman's case, it will have been worth the wait and I hope that she is now embarked on a long and prolific writing career.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 'World's Oldest Profession' : Considerations for Fantasy Writers

The recent scandal involving the Secret Service's advance teams has prodded me into thinking about the way prostitution is portrayed in the fantasy literature I have read. Prostitution is not well regarded in the U.S. and is illegal in most locales here. Surveys show that in the U.S., Australia and the U.K., the overwhelming majority of men do not patronize prostitutes. Many feminists, sociologists and scholars feel that prostitution leads to the exploitation and abuse of sex workers and that few enter the profession willingly. However, some activists and researchers claim that decriminalizing prostitution would lead to increased empowerment of those in the profession and that the portrayal of all sex workers as unwilling victims is simplistic and patronizing.

Although it is not really thought to be the world's oldest profession (that would be hunting and gathering), prostitution has been ubiquitous throughout recorded human history and across cultures. Therefore, is hardly surprising that it crops up frequently in fantasy novels, where prostitutes working in brothels, as streetwalkers or as courtesans sometimes appear as characters and the presence of streetwalkers or bordellos, even in the background, often provide atmosphere for a story.

One thing that interests me is that prostitutes and at least some of their customers are often shown in a positive light, and the dangers associated with the profession (rape, assault, STD's, unintended pregnancy, loss of autonomy, mental illness, substance abuse) are often skimmed over or not portrayed at all.

The hardest part of writing this piece for me was deciding on what aspect of the institution to focus on. There are so many questions about the issue that a fantasy writer could benefit from researching before he or she can decide how to portray the institution in the context of his or her world. What has its legal status been in various times, cultures and locations? What have religious attitudes about it been in different times and places in history? What are the differences in male and female attitudes about prostitution and do these attitudes vary in different cultures? How common have male prostitutes been throughout history, and how common has the practice of men selling sex to women been? What is the effect of gender equality, contraception and the liberalization of pre-marital sexual relations for both genders on demand for paid sex? What are the characteristics of the males who use the services of female prostitutes in different cultures? What reasons do women/girls (and or men/boys) have for taking up the profession and have these changed throughout history and across cultures? How common is the prostitution of children in different cultures? Does prostitution either arise from or result in the objectification of women? Can it ever be empowering for a women to be a prostitute or is it always degrading? Are there women (or men) who enjoy being prostitutes?What kind of effect does prostitution have on a woman's (or man's) non professional sexual/romantic relationships?

Any of these topics could be the subject for a long paper, even a thesis study, by themselves. I got pretty overwhelmed when I started researching this. After some deliberation, I decided that this is a topic that I may revisit from time to time, as a lot of what I have read so far is fascinating ... and also very confusing. As it turns out, there is not a clear consensus among scholars, sociologists and women's rights activists on many of these questions.

The question I started out with was, 'how do I want to portray prostitutes and prostitution in my own fantasy world?' Since it has been such an ubiquitous institution, at some point or another it is going to crop up, at least in a peripheral way. Is it reasonable, for instance, to assume that any or all of my male characters have obtained the services of a sex worker at some time in their lives? Would this reflect or shape their attitudes about sex and women in general? What about my female characters? What would their attitudes about it be? Would the presence of male prostitutes who service women be plausible in the context of my world? What circumstances would lead someone to become a prostitute? How do the religions I've created regard it? What is its legal status? Would prostitutes, in general, be degraded or empowered or something in between?

Next time I write on this topic, I think I will go through some of the perceptions/portrayals of prostitutes in literature and the media. I will then use this as a springboard to summarize/discuss the way it's been portrayed by some of my favorite authors and to determine if there's any sort of pattern. At some point, I will attempt to determine which, if any of these portrayals is most 'realistic,' given the context of the world the author has created.

So if anyone who stumbles across this has any suggestions about stereotyped portrayals of prostitutes and prostitution (I've already come up with six) or has any suggestions about fantasy novels where prostitutes or prostitution is fairly prominent (doesn't have to be related to the main plot, but it should be there in the background and in sufficient detail to get a sense for how it's regarded), I'd love to hear them. I already have a list of six or seven novels I've read over the past few years, but I know they are only the tip of the iceberg.


Brents J. (2005). J. of  Interpersonal Violence. 20(3) 270-95

Farley, Melissa, and Barkan, Howard, "Prostitution, Violence Against Women,and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder"Women & Health 27 (3): 37-49. The Haworth Press, Inc. 1998

Liberator, M (2005) http://www.liberator.net/articles/prostitution.html

Maron, D.F. (2008). What Sex Workers Want: Will Decriminalizing Prostitution Make it Any Safer? http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/12/18/what-sex-workers-want.html

ProCon.org. http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004119

Weitzer, R., (2010). The mythology of prostitution: Advocacy research and public policy.
Sexuality research and social policy, 7: 15-29

 A less that romantic portrayal of some aging prostitutes by Otto Dix in the 1920's

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Anachronisms in fantasy worlds

            I was recently writing a scene in one of my stories that took place in a barn. My first inclination was to have one of my characters plop herself down on a convenient hay bale, since those have been commonplace in livestock barns since time immemorial, right? Well, actually ... no. I started to think. How is hay baled anyways? Is it something that people have ever done by hand? Hay bales, as we know them, are tightly compressed and bound together by something called baling wire. Would it be possible to produce something like that before sophisticated machinery, whether steam powered or hand cranked, started to make its appearance somewhere in the mid 1800s? A little research revealed that the hay press (or hay baler) wasn't invented until the 1850's, and the modern 'pick up' or 'square' baler wasn't invented until the 1940's. So those square hay bales that we all take for granted as a prop for square dances really didn't make their appearance until relatively modern times.  In light of this, it is amazing how many fantasy novels that are set in ostensibly medieval or Renaissance era worlds make passing mentions to hay bales.
            This is not to say that a fantasy world needs to parallel the history of western Europe in the timing of its inventions. Part of the fun of writing fantasy is the ability to mix and match from different times and places in history as well as being able to come up with things that have never existed at all. The expansion of the genre to include intentionally anachronistic amalgamations of different periods in history, with or without magic as an added catalyst, has allowed a variety of interesting settings, including all the variations of 'punk' that have been popping up. If you write a story in one of these settings, you are assisted by the presence of certain 'norms' and conventions that frame a reader's expectations.
            But if you are trying to create a unique world that doesn't fit any of the pre-existing subgenres within fantasy, some thought may be in order as to what you're including and why. It is not inconceivable that someone could have developed an early prototype of a hay press in a pre-industrial society. After all, Queen Elizabeth had a flush toilet (as did some people in Ancient China and Minoan Crete). The Romans, of course, had bathhouses and aqueducts and fairly sophisticated sanitation, and the Bronze Age Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro actually had very sophisticated running water systems. And the myriad of social and religious institutions that existed in the ancient world are simply staggering. However, a writer needs to be aware that many readers have a default expectation that a 'traditional' high fantasy setting will be essentially medieval.
            If you are going to portray something in your world that some readers might question, it is probably a good idea to at least have it be something that the society could ostensibly support at its current level of organization. It is reasonable for a society to start using buttons as fastenings for clothes much earlier than our culture did, for instance, but perhaps it is less reasonable for people to have zippers.
            So when deciding what sorts of day to day technologies and conveniences people in your world may have access to, don't be afraid to be innovative, but keep an eye to how you will make the presence of these things plausible to your readers in the context of the world and society you have built.

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rectangular_hay_bales,_Fry%C5%A1t%C3%A1k_%281%29.jpg