Join my newsletter and receive the first three chapters of Provenance!


So a while ago I made a try at reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. But I have this thing about nonfiction–if I run across one or more glaring inaccuracies I find it impossible to trust the rest of what the author tells me, or the honesty of their arguments.

The sort of thing that puts me off is generally the sort of thing that five minutes with Wikipedia would clear up. In this case, I ran across this sentence:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in 1900, is widely recognized to be a parable for the Populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, who ran twice for president on the Free Silver platform–vowing to replace the gold standard with a bimetallic system that would allow the free creation of silver money alongside gold.

Okay, so. This is mostly only recognized by people who have their pareidolia turned up way too high, and also a fine disregard for Baum’s stated purpose (and what the actual point of a parable is to begin with). I read that sentence and said, out loud, “Are you shitting me, Graeber?” and closed the book and sent it back to the library.

But a friend of mine suggested maybe I’d been too hard on him and maybe I should give him another chance. So I got it out again and paged past the offending spot, and dove back in. And some of it is interesting and I find myself going “yes, that makes a great deal of sense.” But every couple pages I feel like he’s making logical leaps–small ones, but still. Not enough to make me put the book down.

Then I run across a sentence where he seems to conflate a commentary on a source with the source itself. I raise my eyebrow. And then I hit this.

To the contrary, insofar as prostitution did occur (and remember, it could not have been nearly so impersonal, cold-cash a relation in a credit economy), Sumerian religious texts identify it as among the fundamental features of human civilization, a gift given by the gods at the dawn of time. Procreative sex was considered natural (after all, animals did it). Non-procreative sex, sex for pleasure, was divine.

The footnote at the end of this passage just cites two books, it doesn’t give any explanation or amplification. Now, I’m not an expert in this area, I’m only a hobbyist. But I know what “religious texts” he’s talking about here, that describe the “fundamental features of human civilization.” He’s talking about the mes. Which are–oh, let’s let Wiki tell us:

In Sumerian mythology, a me (Sumerian, conventionally pronounced [mɛ]) or ñe [ŋɛ] or parşu (Akkadian, [parsˤu]) is one of the decrees of the gods foundational to those social institutions, religious practices, technologies, behaviors, mores, and human conditions that make civilization, as the Sumerians understood it, possible. They are fundamental to the Sumerian understanding of the relationship between humanity and the gods.

So, if the gods gave us these social institutions, religious practices, technologies, etc. they must all be good things, right? Divine gifts from the gods? It’s not necessarily a bad assumption, but go look at that list. Lots of good things and then you get things like the destruction of cities, lamentation, and falsehood.

So, “prostitution is on the list of mes” isn’t really a very good argument for the ancient Sumerians holding a positive view of prostitution. I don’t say they didn’t, understand, just that you couldn’t necessarily know that from its presence on this list. (Or for that matter, from its apparently religious nature, at least in some cases, which is his other support for his claims about Sumerian attitudes towards prostitution. But that’s a whole other discussion.)

But Graeber is basing part of his argument on the attitude of ancient Sumerians towards prostitution (vs later attitudes), and this is his evidence for the attitude he says they had. And so the question for me is, did he not actually look at the list of mes? There are plenty of Sumerian texts that are mentioned or summarized in books but hard to find in translation, but this one, as I mention above, is easily available. So if he didn’t read the actual list of mes, he did sloppy research and I’m bound to wonder where else he skipped research he ought to have done.

Or did he know what was on the list, and that things like destruction of cities and troubled heart and fear and terror were there (they are) but went ahead anyway because darnit he was sure he was right and how many of his readers would question it, or had ever actually seen that list? Cause it’s pretty obscure.

Either way I can’t really trust him anymore–if he’s ignoring or eliding things in areas I know something about, surely it’s happening elsewhere in the book and I just don’t see it because how could I? And now it’s increasingly difficult to go any farther without going , “No, really? Can I believe any of this?” Which is a shame, because I’m interested in understanding his arguments, and I think his takedown of the “myth of barter” is spot on–I’m just having trouble following him much farther because I keep seeing moments like this that speak of either ignorance (which means some arguments, no matter how logically composed, won’t stand because they’re based on inaccurate premises) or dishonesty (which means he knows some facts won’t support his thesis but he’s going to deal with that by eliding those things).

Ugh. I hate when that happens.

The Adventure of the Vacuumed Cat

Yeah, I’ve got Real Life Crit Group on Sunday, and a story I need to finish before then so I can, you know, get it critted. I’m up to the climactic scene, I’m kind of stuck for a detail. Normally I get those details by reading huge amounts of nonfiction, and then adding in showers or naps. So I ought to be using arcane methods of divination to figure out what nonfiction I need to read. Instead, of course, I’m writing a blog post.

I was, as I just mentioned yesterday, a victim of the Arthurian Virus. Around the same time, I also contracted a Sherlockian infection. It was mild compared to the Arthurian thing, but it left a lasting impression.

Before I recovered, I had ingested not only the entire Sherlockian Canon, but also The White Company and a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. It wasn’t nearly as hard-hitting as Arthur was–I was left able to appreciate most of the pastiches that occasionally hit the market (Carol Nelson Douglas FTW, IMO), but never amassed a collection or spent time tracking down related historical information. And I have to admit, besides the fake notes customarily tacked onto the front of pastiches about finding boxes of papers signed by Dr Watson, I have a decided aversion to The Game.

This desperately needs a cut. Don’t click unless you want to read nearly three thousand words of me blathering about Sherlock Holmes.

Fiction, etc.

It’s November 1! Samhain, All-Saints, whatever you prefer to name it! And that means GigaNotoSaurus is live, with a story by Ruth Nestvold, “The Bleeding and the Bloodless.” If you’d like a portable version, something you can read on the train or whatever, there’s a link to an epub version right there at the top of the page.

And the etc. involves more fiction!

I saw this morning on Shweta Narayan’s journal that the Carl Brandon Society is…well, here:

The Carl Brandon Society is holding a prize drawing of five eReaders starting November 1st and ending November 22nd, 2010. The funds raised will benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, a fund that sends two emerging writers of color to the Clarion writers workshops annually.

Entrants will have the opportunity to win one of two (2) available Barnes & Noble Nooks, one of two (2) available Kobo Readers (with Wi-Fi), and one (1) Alex eReader by Spring Design. Drawing tickets cost one US dollar ($1).

In addition, each eReader will come pre-loaded with books, short stories, poems and essays by writers of color from the speculative fiction field. Some of the writers include N. K. Jemisin, Nisi Shawl, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Terence Taylor, Ted Chiang, Shweta Narayan, Chesya Burke, Moondancer Drake, Saladin Ahmed, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and there will be many more.

How awesome is that? How much will a dollar set you back? For a chance to win an ereader with amazing authors on it? Go enter, you know you want to.

Next! Not a huge steampunk fan–though the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation has me thinking even more about Steampunky issues and I might avoid fiction-writing by throwing those thoughts at y’all*–but, okay, where did that sentence start?

Not a huge steampunk fan, but look at the TOC of Steam Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories and tell me it doesn’t look tempting. You can pre-order it, it comes out in January.

ETA–Oh, and dang it! This is what happens when I have a bunch of stuff tabbed up and mean to post about it–I miss something.

Apex Magazine’s Arab/Muslim themed issue is up. I know what I’ll be reading today.

*Loved it! Except the second episode kind of bugged me a bit. I’ve been mulling over that. But I find myself watching the other two over, and I pulled my copy of the originals off my bookshelf this weekend, and that’s a sure sign something’s fermenting.

Story at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

So, like I said a while ago, when Beneath Ceaseless Skies appeared on the scene, I said to myself, “Self, I would love to sell them a story.”

And lo, I have done this thing! And the newest issue is now posted, and my story “Beloved of the Sun” is available for your (I hope) reading pleasure!

I’m incredibly pleased to be appearing at BCS. They’ve published some really great stories, and I’m thrilled to be in the same company as the authors who have been published there.

Insert Title Here

Ooh, a blog post! Ann must be avoiding writing fiction!

Right you are!

So, my last post about first person led at least two commenters (Asakiyume– on LJ and Megs on to mention that first person doesn’t need some sort of constructed excuse, or logistical framework, and what about stories like Sunset Boulevard or The Lovely Bones? And of course they’re right.

That got me thinking about assumptions we make–as readers and as writers–about third person narratives. The argument is that first person requires an occasion or at least the possibility of an occasion where the narrator is actually telling the story. That’s okay as far as it goes–I don’t think it actually goes very far, truth be told, but I’ll entertain the notion for the sake of argument.

Who is telling the story of, say, “To Build a Fire” and how does the narrator know what happened, given that there’s only one character and he dies at the end, quite alone?

Did you ever ask that question? I’m betting not. Because, I think, we’ve got this idea of stories in third person as being neutral and objective, like it’s pure narrative coming out of thin air. But there’s always someone telling the story, whether it’s obviously someone who was obviously present, or not. So what makes third person any different from first person in this regard? Why are there no faux-prohibitions against writing any stories at all in which the protagonist is the only character and dies an unwitnessed death?

Or even less dramatically–if we need that sort of “logical” framework to tell a story, how is it that any narrator who is not the character herself can tell us what’s in the thoughts of that character?

The answer is, they can’t. No actual, existing narrator can. Fiction conventionally ignores this, so that we can tell stories about men who die because they’re alone and can’t build fires, or tell stories about the intimate psychological states of various characters, or whatever it is we need to do. First person is really no less able to take advantage of convention, ignore it or twist it, or whatever the writer wants to do. As long as it’s done well, and it works, then it’s all good.

I think ignoring that aspect of third person–that whether or not the text acknowledges it directly, there’s always a narrator, always some entity with its own point of view telling the story–isn’t a particularly good idea. Particularly if you’re interested in working with Omniscient, which isn’t really fashionable right now, and to judge from the two slushpiles I see regularly, isn’t a tool in a lot of aspiring writers’ toolkits, or at least not one they know how to use effectively. Omniscient isn’t just pure story and exposition coming from out of the air, all-knowing and utterly impartial. I mean, sometimes it pretends to be that, but it isn’t, and IMO understanding that is important for being able to handle omni well.

I also think it’s a good idea to stop and think about all the “third person” stories we tell and hear just in our daily lives. Casting them in third person can make them seem completely objective, but every story is told from a point of view, and no single point of view is completely objective and impartial. I think it’s important to realize that, just generally.

Thinking about this led me off on a tangent. You know stories like, oh, The Worm Ouroborus, or A Princess of Mars, or Looking Back, or…there are bunches of them. They want to be stories about someone in a Fantastic world–the far future, Mars, Mercury, etc, wherever. If someone were writing those stories these days–well, they’d be very different stories, no one would write those stories these days, because “these days” are their own time with their own concerns and preoccupations, but that’s a whole other digression–if someone were writing those stories these days, would she bother making some present day person have a vision in which the story set on another planet could unfold? Not likely–she’d just tell us what happened, plain as that. Would she bother having the main character fall asleep and wake up in the future? Maybe–but she’d be more likely to say, “I want to write about the future!” and just…start the story there. And even if she went with waking up in the future, she’d likely not bother with the “And then I woke up!” ending, thus explaining how we could have received the story to begin with. Because we don’t actually need that. Would she bother to make the main character mysteriously fall into a torpor and wake on Mars–and then mysteriously wake up again on Earth? Maybe–but then again, she’d maybe just start “One day on Mars…”

I’m thinking it used to be much more common for writers to construct those sorts of logical frames around fantastic stories, the issue of “how are we hearing this tale to begin with” was a question they felt needed an answer.* But it’s not one we’ve really been interested in, as readers or writers, for quite some time, particularly in F&SF. Who cares how we know the story? All that really matters is the story itself.

Which doesn’t mean thinking about that framework isn’t potentially useful, or no one should use that sort of frame because it’s old fashioned or whatever–use whatever seems good to you! But it’s been a long time since anyone really worried overmuch about how a guy on Mars could give us a first person account of his adventures if he was on Mars and we were here–or how adventures on Mars could become known to us at all, first or third person. It’s not a matter of every story needing some sort of justification, it’s not a matter of rules about what could or couldn’t be told to us under what conditions. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to do, of what works for the particular story you’re working on.
*I have not done extensive research to back up this assertion, so it may turn out to be entirely incorrect.

I was one born accursed in two ways.

So, this weekend, sitting around drinking coffee in the bookstore, talking about writing with Anna Schwind. By a fairly circuitous route, the topic of rules came up, and one of my least favorites, the “rule” (or sometimes merely “advice”) that one shouldn’t write in first person.

So, why shouldn’t one write in first person? Give me one good reason.

You know what that one good reason is? I’m sure you do, you’re opening your mouth to say it right now, just this very moment, “Ann, the reason is that you can’t have any real suspense in a first person story, because you know the narrator doesn’t die! You knew that!”

Okay. So. That’s bunk. It does not bear examination.

So let’s examine it, shall we?

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window

Got some downtime, or gonna have some time to read? Maybe you’ve enjoyed Rachel Swirsky‘s work in the past–stories like A Memory of Wind or A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands or the story that just appeared on, The Monster’s Million Faces.

Well, then, you might enjoy Rachel’s new novella–the longest piece she’s written to date, unless I’m mistaken–The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window. Because, you know, it’s awesome.

So go read it!

The Native Star by M.K. Hobson

Y’all know that M.K. Hobson is awesome, right? Because you’ve read “The Hotel Astarte” or “Hell Notes”, and you’ve heard her narrate stories and host episodes for Podcastle. Right?

Well. Her first novel, The Native Star, comes out today.

It’s 1876, and business is rotten for Emily Edwards, town witch of the tiny Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine. With everyone buying patent magicks by mail-order, she’s faced with two equally desperate options. Starve—or use a love spell to bewitch the town’s richest lumberman into marrying her.

When the love spell goes terribly wrong, Emily is forced to accept the aid of Dreadnought Stanton—a pompous and scholarly Warlock from New York—to set things right. Together, they travel from the seedy underbelly of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, across the United States by train and biomechanical flying machine, to the highest halls of American magical power, only to find that love spells (and love) are far more complicated and dangerous than either of them could ever have imagined.

Here’s a trailer!

You can click on that amazon link above and buy yourself a copy. Me, I didn’t have to buy a copy! Because she sent me an ARC, which I read this summer as I lounged beside the pool. It was an absorbing and fun read–a little romancier than I tend to like, but that wasn’t something that dimmed my enjoyment in the least.

I’ve said before that I’m not a particularly good book reviewer. So instead I’m going to link you to this review from Green Man Review:

If there was a shelf in your local library for Alternate American History Weird West Steampunk Romance Adventure Fantasy, The Native Star would be there. There’s no other novel quite like it, nor is there likely to be until the release of the second planned book in the series.

The aforementioned second book is The Hidden Goddess, but you needn’t fear you’ll be cliffhangered by the first–The Native Star works fine as a standalone.

You can read the first chapter here.

What are you waiting for? Run out and get yourself a copy!