Because the only thing more terrifying than velociraptors are velociraptors that can fly.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I'm an Author (and I'm Not Dead)

Recently, I read T. H. White's book, "The Once and Future King" about King Arthur (which I enjoyed). In its first book, Merlyn changes young Arthur into a bird of prey and puts him in the mews (the section of a castle where one houses birds of prey) to learn from the birds as they talk at night. The birds are described as being like military men and women, and one of them, a goshawk, is said to be half-mad. When Arthur encounters him, he spouts off random racial slurs and vague aspersions about "the government." In reading this, I thought Cully the goshawk was supposed to represent a Vietnam war vet with PTSD, someone who's seen terrible things and no longer quite "all there." But then I thought, no, that doesn't work. White wrote the first part of this book in the '30s, long before even WWII. He couldn't have been alluding to after the Vietnam War. And that brings me to New Criticism and the Death of the Author.

Now, I get (or at least, think that I get) what these schools of criticism are trying to say. If an author is dead or unable to be contacted, how is an audience supposed to understand the "true" meaning of a work? And isn't the interpretation of every reader just as valid as that of the author? If I read Fahrenheit 451 and see it as a critique of censorship, shouldn't I be allowed to do that?

I say, "Sure." Every reader's interpretation of a work is as valid as everyone else's, even the authors, but that's only because of how one defines the word "validity." When I say "validity" or that an interpretation is "valid," I mean that the opinion has been formed with a clear understanding of events. I read a work of literature. I understand what has happened in the story. I form an opinion of what it means. That opinion would be as valid as anyone else's, even if our opinions are different from each other.

So if we go back to White's work and do what the Death of the Author would have us do: view the work as a self-contained piece of art, paying no attention to the person who wrote it, when it was written, etc. All we have is the text. Then my interpretation of Cully the Goshawk as representing a Vietnam war vet would be valid. Based on the evidence of the text (and only the text), my view makes sense.

But surely we can't say that we must view all texts as whole in-and-of-themselves, can we? How then can satire function? Every work of satire, after all, works on two levels: the story being told, and that which the story is satirizing. Without understanding the time in which Jonathon Swift lived, for example, how can one gain the fullest interpretation of Gulliver's Travels? If one didn't know or refused to be aware of the animosity with which Protestants and Catholics of his time viewed the Eucharist, how could one understand that the war fought between Lilliput and Blefusuc wasn't fought merely over which end of an egg should be cracked first? How can one find the deeper meaning in satire without looking beyond the work?

Let us set satire aside for a moment, though, and return to "regular" fiction. No symbolism here, at least not explicitly. Things merely represent themselves. Still New Criticism would have us ignore the author, to look merely at the text, and as an author, that upsets me. I put countless hours into the construction of my worlds, but to write everything in an individual story would result in the creation of encyclopedias or textbooks, not stories. So I restrain myself, I pare down my work, I keep (or try to keep) only what is necessary to make the story function. Thus, by necessity, details get left out. Now I know that the reader has only my words, not access to my vast stores of knowledge about the inner and outer worlds of my characters, but anyone who tells me that they know better than I about what is going on in my stories will be upset me greatly.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Slight Delay in Our Publishing Schedule

Alrighty, as you may or may not know already, I'm not going to be publishing any more episodes of Professor Jack's adventures besides the one at the end of the month. I've been running into too much trouble with getting these things edited in such a short time period, but I feel like I've been pretty successful in what I set out to do.

I wanted to learn how to publish on Amazon, and I've done that. I wanted to get myself somewhat inured to editing things on a regular basis as training for my thesis manuscript, and I've done that too.

I will write the rest of Professor Jack's book by the end of the year, but the next thing I'm going to publish will be the whole book, after I've edited the whole thing.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who's been on this adventure with me, and your support has been really encouraging.

Meanwhile, I'm working on some short stories (mostly forcing myself to stick to a word limit of 5k, which is hard), both to send to my mentor at Carlow, as well as to try and get something I like and can send to magazines.

I'm also going to be working on my thesis manuscript to send to HarperCollins open submission period in a few weeks. And if you have a manuscript, I encourage you to get it ready too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Economy is Complicated (This Isn't About Politics)

I thought I should point that out.

No, I'm as sick and tired of watching political ads as you are, dear readers, but we can all agree that the economy is often the subject of those ads. Unlike the regular economy, however, fictional ones can actually be a bit interesting, if still difficult to understand.

For example, I'm working on a short story for school and in the process of brainstorming the world in which the story is based, I came across a concept I'd heard of before, but didn't know a lot about: a post-scarcity economy.

A post-scarcity economy is one in which everyone has everything they want. In other words, no scarcity. Now, despite even the best efforts of science fiction (not to mention reality), I'm not familiar with any  economy that's truly post-scarcity due to the simple fact that human beings are capable of wanting a lot.

A classic example would be Star Trek. I really haven't watched very many of any season of that show, but I know that it's in the future, and replicators and (essentially) free energy mean humanity is capable of creating anything they have the energy for. You want a diamond the size of your house? No problem. You want more food than you could eat in a hundred lifetimes? You got it. But material goods aren't the only sorts of thing that human beings want.

Take the Enterprise, for example. There are only so many seats aboard that space ship. If there are more people that want a space on it than there are spaces, then there is a scarcity of them.

Now, one way of getting to a post-scarcity economy is by a change in human beings. If we no longer care about originality or physical presence, then a molecular copy of the Mona Lisa is just as satisfying as the real one, or a teleprescene/virtual reality simulation of the Enterprise is just as good as being there in the flesh. How we value things will change whether or not those things are capable of being scarce.

Getting back to my story, I'd created a fantasy world with a nation that was, if not a post-scarcity economy, then sort of close to one. My problem lay in the fact that my nation had two neighbors, and if you have everything that you want, how can you trade with somebody?

I realized that economic sanctions (it is illegal to copy this product) would help a little, but eventually decided on culture. One nation is essentially able to mass-produce recordings of dreams (like full-sensory movies), which becomes their biggest export to my P-S economy. The other one has lots of tea (or tobacco, or coffee, I haven't decided). 

So, yeah, I figured out how to base an economy on dreams. Go me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Daniel Abraham is Amazing

Since I don't have my new library card, (yet), I don't have a stack of books in my room just waiting for me to read them. Therefore, when I ran out of new books to read, I turned to my bookshelf and tried desperately to find some I haven't read a dozen times before.

I ended up selecting my 2008 Anthology of Fantasy and Horror short stories, the first story of which is my third favorite, "The Cambist and the Lord Iron." A cambist is a money-changer, and that story is the only one to have ever made economics seem interesting to me.

Something I noticed, though, in reading the story, was the name of the author, Daniel Abraham. I've read the story twice before, but not for a while, so I decided to read the author's bio about Mr. Abraham to see if there was a reason his name rang familiar to me. It turned out there was.

A few months back I heard about a quartet of books called, "The Long Price Quartet," a fantasy world in which certain people called "poets" are able to describe a concept, like rain or sterility, with such power that they can cause the concept to manifest in a form that includes volition. The khaiem, (essentially a kingdom ruled over by a khai), used these manifest concepts (andats) to become the most powerful nation in the land. For when your enemy can cause endless floods in an instant, or force every woman of your people to miscarry, how can you hope to overcome them?

The andats are also useful for trade. Water-Falling-Down made sure the crops of her khaiem always had enough rain to feed the plants, and no rain when they didn't. Seedless, another andat, can take a warehouse full of cotton and rid it of seeds with a gesture. This brings weavers and dyers to the city, which bring with them trade, which brings wealth and prosperity. There is a problem with the andats, though.

They do not like being forced into human form. They are slaves, held against their will, and when a poet dies, so dies his control of the andat. A new poet must be trained to control the concept, and no andat can be bound the same way twice. Each time it becomes more difficult to bind the andat, to describe them well enough that the binding works, but unique enough that it doesn't copy what has come before. And if a poet tries to bind and andat and fails...?

The results aren't pretty.

I've just finished the first book, A Summer In Shadow, and heartily recommend it anyone. It's about $8 on Kindle, and I fully intend to purchase the second book today.