Despite my landlubber life, I’ve always had a fascination with books about the sea. Maybe that’s part of why I love Melville so much.
It’s not surprising, then, that one of the earliest inventions of the world of Aerdh were the pirates. I’m certainly not the first person to write about a spec fic pirate society, and I won’t be the last. The pirates of Aerdh figure heavily in the plot of The Search, the follow-up to Ariah that I’m currently writing.
For someone who loves worldbuilding, pirates are inherently fascinating. What does it mean to create a society that is inherently a society of outcasts? What sort of mores do they hold? For a society to survive, it has to last more than a generation, which means that children must be born and raised into it. What are the people indigenous to that way of life like? How do they see the world? How do they justify that their culture is, by definition, parasitic–for them to prosper, they must prey on other cultures. And what about the economies that spring up in the pirates’ wake? What are the moral grey zones there?
I’ve written about the pirates before, most notably in Cargo. One of the major secondary characters in The Search is a pirate king–defining the scope of his influence and how he wields it is enlightening. The Search is building out pirate culture above and beyond what was seen in Cargo, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring it.
Beyond the idea of the pirates themselves, with their potential for outlaw justice and redemptive arcs and sanctuary for marginalized individuals, there are the ships. Melville, in his books, used the microcosm that is life on a ship to great effect. I think I was always taken with that, with the way that ship life pens you in with a very limited number of people in a very proscribed amount of space. Ships are truly tiny little worlds of their own drifting through the maw of pure natural force.
Such a strange thing, and such a raw thing, and how could you not then forge such deep relationships with your crew? How could they not become your family? No one ever has neutral feelings about family. You only ever love them dearly or hate the sight of your family. Imagine spending all that time working a ship with someone you can’t stand, who annoys the shit out of you, but you know your life is basically in their hands. It’s maddening. The psychology of ships is insane. So, I keep coming back to them in my writing.
Want posts like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for my newsletter!
Wanderings on the Internet
- One of my short stories, “The Fisher’s Son,” is free to read over at Inkitt. It’s also entered in Inkitt’s Hither and Thither contest–if you like it, review it or vote for it!
- If you missed the #RealDiversityMatters convo on twitter, I summed up my engagement with it in this handy Storify! The voices of marginalized people in the workplace matter, yo.
- Last night I was honored and grateful to be included in the #WeNeedDiverseBlogs twitter chat that focused on reading and reviewing diverse literature. Nicole Brinkley hosted and did a lovely roundup Storify if you missed it and want to catch up! FYI: the next chat is scheduled for 8/16.
- Check a fresh new batch of Supernatural Haikus.
- I hit a major plot point in The Search last week that bears more thinking about, so it’s percolating in my subconscious for a week or so. I turned my attentions to a couple of calls for submissions I’ve been meaning to write for instead:
- I wrote a 4k word short story this week called “The Adviser and the Diplomat” about to trans* political dynamos causing a lot of political upheaval as a matter of personal survival.
- I planned out a sci fi story for another call that will feature redwood trees very prominently. I think it will be super cool. Stay tuned for that one! Once it’s in the bag I’ll go back to The Search.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am a Melville nerd. I am a big enough Melville nerd that I have the last line of “Bartleby the Scrivener” tattooed on my arm. I am a big enough nerd that reading Moby Dick wasn’t enough for me–I followed it up with Redburn.
Here’s the thing: Redburn is an early effort that’s passable in its own right, but really doesn’t prepare you for the genius gamechanger it’s laying the groundwork for. You just don’t see anything like Moby Dick coming based on Redburn. Which is not to say Redburn isn’t a good book, or an enjoyable one, or one worth reading (especially if you, like me, are struck with an incredibly geeky urge to go all completionist and read everything Melville wrote). But it does mean that reading Redburn after reading Melville’s legitimately more famous and better-regarded books is a peculiar experience.
To just take the book on its own terms, devoid of context or history or knowledge of what comes after, Redburn is at its heart a tale of a boy just coming to terms with the fact that his view of the world, and in particular his understanding of it as a fair and just place, has been shattered. It’s a pretty standard story of innocence lost and adulthood gained, told in hindsight by an older version of Wellingborough Redburn himself (and isn’t that a hell of a name?*) who seems slightly embarassed at just how naive he was way back in the day. This theme is nested throughout the book, starting with the economic collapse of his father to the inherent unfairness of life on the sea, to the inherent unfairness of poverty he’s first exposed to in Liverpool. The scope of the book gradually grows, like going from the innermost matroushka doll to the outermost one, which is a neat little trick on Melville’s part and rings very true for anyone who’s grappled with forging his or her own worldview in adolescence.
And the writing is lovely. Here, like in Moby Dick or “Bartleby,” Melville is telling you a story through someone else telling you a story. And one thing that keeps me coming back to Melville time and again is just that: that he tells you a story. The writing here is intimate and immediate, like you’re sitting in a comfortably overstuffed armchair with Redburn and he’s recounting his youthful exploits to you — just you — over a cup of tea. In fact, it’s a little bit purer here in Redburn than in anything else I’ve read by him. It’s got more scope than “Bartleby” by virtue of its length alone and unlike Moby Dick, where Ishmael himself starts to fade in and out of the narrative, Redburn is always front and center. It’s Redburn telling Redburn’s story (as opposed to the rather elderly gentleman telling you about Bartleby or Ishmael telling you about the Pequod) and Redburn, luckily, has the wit and grace as a reflective narrator to carry it.
But if I’m being honest, I think the only people who would be willing to read Redburn and enjoy it are people like me who have already signed on for the Herman Melville Experience once and don’t mind coming back for more. And since that’s the case, the truth of the matter is that Redburn is most interesting to read in the context of Melville more broadly. In Redburn, you see what is essentially the first pass at themes and archetypes Melville will use to much greater and deeper effect later on. In particular, Jackson reads like a more malicious and less conflicted version of Claggart. And Redburn himself reads as a terribly naive and less observant version of Ishmael. Perhaps Ishmael ten or fifteen years before he set foot on the Pequod. Redburn, like Ishamel, is more educated and more refined than the others on his boat, and Redburn (like Ishmael) finds himself falling into very close, very fast (and very homoerotic) friendships with foreigners as soon as he gets the chance. As in Benito Cereno, Melville’s ambivalence towards America — its grandeur built on foundations of injustice, its insularity, its conformity that can (as far as Melville seems to be aware) only be escaped by shipping out to sea — becomes a dominant theme.
And more than that, Redburn gives a great deal of insight into Melville himself. If Ishmael is more or less an idealized version of Melville, Redburn is clearly who Melville thought he once was. The parallels between Redburn and Melville are striking (so striking that my copy of Redburn has an appendix which notes chapter by chapter aspects of Melville’s own first voyage that he fictionalized for the book). Redburn is a book about a young man whose education and experiences lead him to sea totally unprepared, one who has to adapt without any clear guidance, and who in the process finds life at sea both utterly freeing and constraining, and really that young man is Herman Melville and not Wellingborough Redburn. It’s not so surprising, then, that Melville was dismissive of Redburn. He wrote it fast and wrote it for the money and frankly, you can tell. It’s an overly long, highly digressive travelogue of a book where you find yourself sifting through random chapters about churches in Liverpool and Redburn’s father’s unusable guidebook before Melville eventually gets around to anything resembling a plot again. This technique works a lot better in Moby Dick, but even there people find it annoying.
But I can’t help but wonder if he was dismissive of it because it was a little exposing to him, too. Writing it that fast perhaps meant that it’s more raw, more reflective of parts of himself he wasn’t fond of, and when all is said and done that’s what will stick with me most about this book.
* His name, despite what the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition of the book would have you believe, is actually Wellingborough Redburn and not Wellington Redburn. Shame on you, Penguin Classics, shame on you.
The Garden of Eden only got interesting when Eve at that apple.
The Awl recently ran an lovely piece interrogating why utopian novels are, by and large, not all that readable. Noah Berlatsky cites a number of reasons in his analysis, but really it comes down to this: narratives need conflict, and utopias, by definition, don’t have substantial enough conflicts to keep us interested as readers. There are no real problems in these worlds; there is nothing to overcome. And, therefore, there is nothing for the reader to root for or relate to. It’s purely aspirational.
Utopias also echo a common weakness in the stories of new writers. Here’s an example from my own writing: I wrote a story1 where the beats were largely as follows:
- boy and best friend go to a bar
- boy watches best friend make his rounds; boy winds up playing bartender
- boy gets hit on and gently passes on another boy
- boy goes home alone, feeling fine with his life choices
Ok, in retrospect, that’s…not actually an interesting story. It’s not even a story. There were some nice moments in it, and some good turns of phrase, but on rereading it a year or so later I kept waiting for something to happen. For anything to happen. Like, why was I writing this night of this kid’s life? It was just a night, any night, a purely unremarkable night. There was no conflict. There was nothing driving the story.
This doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to Go On A Quest for there to be conflict. Conflict can be mined from everyday interactions. Here’s another story of mine2, written around the same time, featuring the same character, which actually does have a conflict and a resolution and this is an actual story:
- girl and boy start hanging out
- girl likes boy, doesn’t know if boy likes her back
- girl kisses this boy. He giggles like a mad man. She is embarrassed.
- boy gets his shit together and writes her a poem because he does actually like her back
- girl and boy are happily for now
See? It’s not a grand, sweeping, world-altering conflict, but it’s a conflict! She is unsure! She took a risk! She doesn’t know what will happen! There is uncertainty! those are all signs of a conflict.
The truth is that if your story doesn’t have a conflict driving its characters forward, no matter how pretty your language is, your reader will probably disengage. A story without a conflict is essentially a story without a plot.
Want posts like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for my newsletter!
1This story will probably never see the light of day, and we’re all better for it, trust me.
2While this story is marginally better than The One With No Conflict, you really don’t want to read this one either.
Wanderings on the Internet
- Are you going to be at Sirens Con 15? I am, and I’ll be presenting! That’s my session up there. It’s on worldbuilding.
- Check a fresh new batch of Supernatural Haikus.
- #BusWriting proved especially productive this week: The Search grew from 76k words to 82k words! Shayat and Sorcha are now entering a whole new section of the book.
Alex Fedyr’s debut novel, Estranged is a resilient and unexpected genre-bender of a book. It’s as much steeped in crime thrillers as it is paranormal horror. It’s half-zombie and half-vampire. Though Estranged suffers from a few problems that, I think, might be debut-author missteps, on the whole the book is a solid effort.
Kalei Distrad is a cop in Celan, where she works clean up on Estranged attack sites. The Estranged can kill Untouched people with a brush of skin-to-skin contact, and Kalei lost her parents to them. All she wants is to become a Warden—a member of SWORDE, the front line against the Estranged. That’s who Kalei is when we first meet her. By the end of the first chapter, Kalei is someone completely, wholly different. By the end of the book, Kalei is reincarnated one over again.
Suffice to say Fedyr keeps the plot moving. Plot and pacing are used to excellent effect; Fedyr juggles multiple plot arcs, each well-paced, each unifying at the end of the book to good effect. There was one major twist I felt was unbelievable1, but otherwise, each twist was satisfying and surprising.
The Estranged themselves are innovative, interesting horror creatures: Fedyr takes elements from both zombies and vampires, but makes them something else entirely. Like most monsters, the Estranged are posited to interrogate something about human nature, and the Estranged raise a host of questions about addiction. Anyone who has struggled with addiction or has lived with or loved someone who has dealt with addiction will engage with this book on a whole deeper level; I know I did. The complexities of addiction are on display here, most especially that addicts are still people, even in the throes of their addiction, even when it makes them do terrible things, and while that doesn’t absolve what they do it does complicate what it means to be human.
Some of that lovely nuance gets lost in spots where Fedyr’s choices as an author distract from the plot and the characters. For example, I was confused by two characters with almost exactly the same name who are allies to Kalei (hint: Mar and Marley are not the same person). A more problematic example is the use of what reads like feigned African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to code at least one White character as sketchy and low class. Later in the book, this character essentially code-switches between AAVE and Standard English. Given that this character is White, this is deeply appropriative of Black culture, and the character traits Fedyr was trying to communicate to the reader about this character using code-switching and AAVE to begin with were not necessarily positive. I am a White reader, but there is a good chance that a reader of color, especially a Black reader, could see this as a major race fail.
In sum, Estranged is an engaging and thoughtful horror novel, and a solid first effort from Fedyr albeit with some missteps. It ends with a chilling cliffhanger, and I hope Fedyr is writing a sequel so I can see what happens next!
1To my point about Estranged being a debut book, this particular plot twist would have flown better with more foreshadowing and groundwork laid earlier in the book.
A couple of days ago, I read Karin Kross’s recap of the Sex and Science Fiction panel that happened at SDCC. From Karin’s recap, it sounds like the panel was equal parts thoughtful1 and irritating2. In any case, the recap got me thinking about the role sex plays in my own writing.
Just narrowing the scope of this post to sex, the act itself, and how that has occurred in my fiction, I’ve tried to explore it in ways that mirror the way sex is used in the real world. Which, yes, often sex is an expression of love. Or desire. But many times, sex is divorced from both of those things: it can be used as a weapon (either literallyy or figuratively). It can be used transactionally, economically. Sometimes these uses blend together, and you can’t separate one from another.
Sex for love and desire happens often in my writing; my characters tend to be sexually and romantically agentic people. Yay for them! That’s why Ariah was classified as a romance, after all3. But here are some other ways sex has appeared in my fiction:
“Matters of Scale” touches obliquely on the issue of sexual addiction. Both “Matters of Scale” and Ariah explore the intersection of sex and magic with regard to shapers, for whom sex is complicated—consent is tricky because they essentially black out4. Some shapers self-medicate with sex to escape the constant noise of their magical abilities, just like some real-life people use sex to keep anxiety or depression or other demons at bay.
Cargo is one of the very few places I’ve written about sexual violence. It’s a topic I write about infrequently, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s triggering and it’s often written about flippantly and inappropriately. But it does happen.
Cargo also introduced the Aerdh-pirate concept of tethers, or captain’s concubines. My current work-in-progress, The Search, is exploring the nuance and nature of tetherdom in greater detail. This is sex as transaction, or at the very least implied sex as transaction, but it’s not coercive. The Search is going further, too: what would a brothel that is not coercive and exploitative look like? What would a sex worker-run brothel look like?
All of these elements were as plot-driven and plot-driving as the romantic and lusty bits. All of these elements, I think, were also key to include from a worldbuilding perspective, as well. It’s false to think of sex one way. It has always been a flexible part of human nature, used and abused and traded in a hundred different ways. Hopefully one day we won’t abuse it anymore, but I think we’ll continue to trade it (hopefully ethically—because I think we can trade it ethically). At the very least, unless you’re writing in a utopia, your world needs to include all the permutations of how sex occurs.
4I am coming to realize there is likely a whole separate post in this.
I think I first read The Martian Chronicles in junior high. Around then, I’d read anything by Bradbury I could get my hands on. I was always rather grateful he’s so prolific. And I remember really liking The Martian Chronicles, but when I picked up a copy a couple of months ago I found I didn’t really remember anything concrete about it. Just that I liked it.
On rereading it, I’ve found I still really like it, though probably not for the same reasons I did back when I was twelve or so. It’s a book ultimately concerned with the ambivalent nature of man — a deep-seated greediness married to a gentler, more altruistic side — and the cyclical nature of change. It traces the settlement of Mars by humans, which results in the accidental genocide of the native Martians via chickenpox and the humans’ attempts to change Mars into a place more comfortable to them. They plant trees to increase the oxygen level in the planet’s atmosphere (a move which, though not directly addressed in the book, strikes me as the sort of thing that would have disastrous downstream consequences) and build towns that look just like the ones they left. Some even build hot dog stands. But when atomic war breaks out on Earth, the settlers go rushing back*, leaving a few isolated, lonely souls behind and Mars virtually uninhabited. The book ends with small clutches of escapees from Earth** touching down illicitly to start a new life there. They declare themselves Martians, and the cycle seems to start over again.
That’s about as close to a plot as the book has. I think it’s technically considered a novel, but really it’s a collection of inter-related short stories. There are a handful of characters that make multiple appearances — most notably, members of the Fourth Expedition to Mars, the first to survive landing there in no small part due to the fact that one of the previous three expeditions wiped out the Martians with chicken pox — but this is not a character-driven book. Really, Bradbury’s focus seems to be on capturing the way life on Mars shifts as the humans take over the planet. And the flexibility of the book’s structure allows him to do that with a wider, more varied lens than he would’ve had if he’d tried to do it using a more traditionally novel-like framework. By making each chapter a discrete episode in an era, he’s able to explore many different reactions to Mars and many different ways of living there.
The structure of the book, actually, is one of the few things I did remember about the book from the way back junior high times. And I’ve always been intrigued by it. It makes sense with Bradbury — he’s a master of the short story. Through the interconnected short stories, The Martian Chronicles is able to give you a sense of what it would be like to live there at any point in the long process of settling, and gives you an understanding of the long process itself.
The other thing that sticks with me is the tone. In story after story, Bradbury writes in simple, almost quaint language, but does so in a way that communicates to the reader his trepidation and distaste with the frontier mindset of the settlers. In each individual story, it’s a quiet, subtle thing, like a warning he’s sending out that he doesn’t really believe will be heeded. A subtext lurking in the background. But over the course of the 27 stories, you get the message loud and clear. But the tone, I think, is at its strongest and most powerful in “The Musicians”:
Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the black flake covering. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a game played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop.
That sense of innocent, thoughtless disrespect for the lives of people and civilizations that came before resonates through Bradbury’s writing in story after story. Sometimes, like in “The Musicians”, this is the focus of the story. But as often as not, it isn’t, it just lurks in the background, coloring how the stories fit together.
*This was about the only thing I found unbelievable about the book. I found it improbable that people would flee a safe planet to one in the throes of nuclear war rather than the other way around. I also wonder how feasible that is — I mean, if shit’s blowing up all over, where are those rockets supposed to land again? But one gaping plot hole in a book this good I can overlook.
**This last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” kept reminding me of that episode of the Twilight Zone where a pair of families escape an impending world war by building rockets and striking out for a peaceful, livable planet in the dead of night. Of course in the episode, that peaceful, livable planet is….EARTH! So it’s inverted, I guess, here. But still, same sense of tension and the same basic plot points.
Wanderings on the Internet
- #NoShameDay happened on Twitter. For those of you who don’t know, I live with mental illness. Here’s a Storify about my experiences to raise awareness.
- Check a fresh new batch of Supernatural Haikus.
- #BusWriting proved especially productive this week: The Search crept from 69k to 76k words! Shayat made a mistake, but is forming a plan. Sorcha cleans up nice.
I’m excited to have Brian C. Baer stop by my blog today and answer a few questions about his novel, Bad Publicity!
Brian C. Baer is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at Eastern Washington University. After teaching English in Prague, London, and Manchester, UK, he has now settled in Spokane,
Washington. Bad Publicity is his first novel.
A major theme in Bad Publicity was secrets–their commodification, their destructive potential, the ethics of uncovering them versus leaving them alone. Can you speak to this what drove you to write about this?
Secrets and that hidden side of everyone has interested me for as long as I can remember. That, along with an interest in journalists, can probably be blamed on reading Superman comics as kid.
Everyone has secrets; they can be simple and benign or very much the opposite, but they are always nobody else’s business. Still, nothing is more intriguing. Modern day “entertainment journalism” struck me as the best way to explore this sort of voyeurism.
I was really interested in the way Madame Blue and the other ghosts played out through the course of the book. Especially with Fitzgerald, who was a new sort of medium. Can you talk a little bit more about your worldbuilding? What was it like in the afterlife for Madame Blue and the other ghosts? What was up with Fitzgerald’s ‘sensitivity’ for lack of a better word?
I didn’t get into the details of the ghosts or Fitzgerald’s gifts in the book, because those ideas are just so cool and I didn’t want to sidetrack the main story too much. To me, the ghosts are just a series of echoes. When you die, you can’t do anything new, but the person you were and the things you did keep ringing out. What makes Madame Blue different is a sense of agency; she is very much stuck in that one facet of her personality, but she has more control and can make more of an impact. And she gets this power from (what she perceives to be) love.
‘Sensitivity’ is actually the best word for what Fitzgerald does. He’s sensitive enough to hear those echoes, but not strong enough to keep himself separate from everything he hears. He’s an overly sensitive guy who loses himself in the thoughts of un-real people. In other words, he’s a writer.
Which came first–Jackson Hardy being a tabloid reporter or the ghosts? Or did the two sides of the plot develop together?
Those two concepts were there from the get-go. The book came from a short story I wrote about a ghost love-triangle. Jackson has this ghost he uses for his job, and the two of them developed a relationship without him realizing it. She fawns over him, but she also fills a void in his life. Then he meets a cute girl and everything goes to hell. Those two’s connection is what made me want to expand the story more.
What are you working on right now? What should readers look for from you next?
I’m in that fun process of struggling to write and over-thinking the sophomore project. I’ve been doing some travel writing and blogging for the ComicBookMedia.com site in the meanwhile, but I’m finally buckling down and working on the next novel. With any luck, it’ll be a slacker farce full of cults, military-industrial complex conspiracies, and slightly too much nostalgia for the mid-90s.
How can readers stay in the loop and get news about your projects and releases?
Well, I spend too much time on Twitter, if that’s what you mean. Follow me @BrianCBaer.
Do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom you want to share?
Just “Never trust anyone who offers you words of wisdom”.