Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part II): How the History of Medieval Romance Shows Us Why Representation Matters

–This post is a continuation of my reflection on “Why Writing the Other is Always Radical”

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.

Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.

Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.

However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.

Always Historicize

As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”

The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.

In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.

For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?

In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.

Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.

In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.

It was this ideology, or some modern form of it, that inspired the Christchurch mosque shooter, who wrote slogans on his guns. “Charles Martel” and “Tours 732” commemorated the heroes of the chanson de geste and the historical events they reference (Elaine Graham-Leigh “Far-Right Terrorists and the Meaning of the Battle of Tours”).

In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.

The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.

The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight

I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.

From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.

The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.

Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.

This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.

What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose

“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.

[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste

(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).

At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.

The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.

Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.

Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.

In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.

Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.

This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.

If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Beat the Drums of Peace

The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”

Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.

When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).

Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.

To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.

If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.

Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF


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Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart


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New Archaeologies of the Weird Newsletter!

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Hello. I’m Matthew Rettino, a Montreal fantasy writer of eclectic taste.

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The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges – Source:
https://ilo.wikipedia.org/wiki

A new essay of mine has just been published with Graphite Publications! It builds off some ideas I express in my Master’s thesis, Fantasy as a Peripheral Modernism, specifically the concept of critical irrealism.

As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.

Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.

Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.

I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.

While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.

https://graphitepublications.com/the-critical-irrealism-of-jorge-luis-borgess-aleph/

The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.

The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.

It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.

Both Malik and Borges use the vision of infinity contained in the Aleph/Cup of Jamshid to present an image of totality–and to subtly critique the possibility of representing that totality. In my article on Malik published in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, I argue that “Pauper Prince” adopts a critical irrealist aesthetic, just as Borges does in his story.

However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.

What’s In Your Leaf-Mould?

Today I open a new chapter in the life of this blog.

I’ve decided to newly commit myself to updating my blog. I’m really going to delve deep into the leaf-mould of my mind for new post ideas. Also, I plan to start writing articles for Medium in the hopes of making a bit of an income as a writer and growing my nonfiction portfolio.

As a result, you can expect more content about fiction writing techniques, particularly speculative fiction techniques, as well as the occasional reflection on whatever book I’m reading right now.

What is a leaf-mould, you might ask?

A leaf-mould is something like the sum of all the creative influences a mind gathers over the years. It is the fertile soil on which the imagination thrives.

The concept comes from J.R.R. Tolkien, who once wrote about The Lord of the Rings in a letter. He said that “one writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”

This was an inspirational quote that Jeanne Cavelos shared when I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016. It reminds us that creativity is an organic process that emerges like a living thing out of the soil.

Over the coming months, I hope to make this blog a repository for my leaf-mould. I also hope to become more serious in getting articles published. Posting may be slower at first as I find my wings, but after a while, I hope to be writing and posting for this blog every week.

Course Offered: Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing

specfic

Are you an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer? If so, I have good news!

I am teaching a speculative fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Avenue, Montreal) called “Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing.”

You will read selections from speculative fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, and China Miéville, while working on your own short story to be workshopped in class.

The 12-week course begins January 7th. Register for the course through the Thomas More Institute website. Questions may be directed to me at matthew.rettino@gmail.com.

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Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

It has been four months since I attended this year’s Congrès Boréal, so a write-up on the conference is probably overdue. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my impressions of my first foray into this predominantly French-language science fiction and fantasy convention.

Congrès Boréal is probably Québec’s main literary fantasy and science fiction convention. It was held in Montreal at the Masonic Temple on Sherbrooke Street last May. I attended to see some familiar faces–Jo Walton and Claude Lalumière were both participating in panels in the English stream–and to acquaint myself with the Francophone writers participating in the convention.

The first panel I attended was called “L’imaginaire a-t-il une langue? Différence culturelle dans l’imaginaire anglophone et francophone” (“Does the imagination have a language? Cultural differences in the anglophone and francophone imaginary.”) The panelists included Olivier Paquet, a science fiction writer from France, Patrick Senecal, a thriller/horror writer in the vein of Stephen King, and Marie Bilodeau, whose English novels have been translated into French.

The discussion was lively and interesting. While there is perhaps less difference between French and English science fiction and fantasy literature than might be assumed at first, the panelists did spot some general trends that mark some dramatic differences. For example, the panelists seemed to agree that sensuality, graphic violence, and unhappy endings are generally more acceptable to French-speaking audiences than to anglophone audiences. Perhaps this was result of old fashioned Anglo-Saxon puritanism, or the American love for Walt Disney-style happy endings. Either way, this traits seemed to me to mark the greatest difference.

Much Québécois horror is inspired from the European horror scene, which tends toward serial killer narratives more than, say, fantastic horror. However, as Paquet explained, pessimism is not the only story in France. The country that produced the scientific optimism associated with Jules Verne continues that tradition in its brand of science fiction that focuses more on sociological issues, as well as adventure.

One interesting idea that arose: language does not inherently carry the values of a society. Rather, culture does. The different traumas and schisms that define a society do have a much greater influence on national literature. For example, Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, remarked one of the panelists, is marked by the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. This echoes how French SF is marked by the policy of laïcité (state secularism), the origins of which go back to the French Revolution. There did seem to be truth to this observation, given how French-language SF is in a sense more “secular” in its embrace of violent and sexual themes that would religious people shiver. On the other hand, anglophone SF retains a more “puritanical” attitude in the literature it produces and censors, particularly in the United States.

This being said, certain attitudes to the French language itself do influence French SF. Patrick Senecal pointed out later in the discussion that French-language editors have a tendency to homogenize the different registers of the language, leading to less linguistic diversity. When editing dialogue, French publishers often edit out regional dialect in favour of “le Français internationale.” The result is a banal, grammatically correct French, where all characters sound the same. These editing decisions do not accommodate the regional French spoken in certain regions of Québec, for example, which leads to a more monovocal (as opposed to polyvocal) body of literature. This is not just unappealing; it’s unrealistic and unrepresentative of how French is actually spoken. As Senecal quipped, “Il n’y a personne qui parle comme Radio Canada!”

Congrès Boréal
Congrès Boréal was held at the Montreal Masonic Memorial Temple

It was fascinating to learn a little bit more about the French-language SF scene here in Québec. As a McGill student and a West Islander, I guess I’m a quintessential Anglo. I don’t read much in French. But perhaps the reason, aside from the language barrier (I read slow in French), is because I’ve never really sought out French literature I enjoy.

Back in March, I picked up Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings in Emmanuelle Chastellière’s French translation, La Chute de La Maison aux Fleches D’Argent. I’m still working through it, but I’ve managed to banish the disagreeable, singsong voice that used to play in my head whenever I would read French books. This voice is a relic from my high school experience reading in French and I’ve finally managed to suppress it. This greater maturity has helped me enjoy reading in French. Though I still have ways to go, breaking my self-imposed taboo has been one mark of progress.

I purchased several issues of Brins d’Éterinté at the con, a Quebec SF magazine, as a promise to myself to read more and expand my vocabulary. One issue had published a translation of a Helen Marshall story, which I certainly appreciated as a fan of her work. French SF writers tend to read English SF a lot more than anglophone writers read French SF, but maybe I can buck that trend. I was pleasantly surprised that several attractive revues SF were represented at the con, such as Clair/Obscure, Étranges Lectures (from France), and Horizons Imaginaries, a CEGEP Marianopolis-based publication which won a prize at the con.

Perhaps working on my French can be my excuse to dig deeper in Quebec SF. In any case, the con was an eye-opening experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in attending. The next conference will be in Sherbrooke in 2019.

 

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An Occult Rebellion: a Review of The Flaw in the Stone by Cynthea Masson

The Flaw in the Stone by Cynthea MassonThe Flaw in the Stone, Cynthea Masson’s second novel in her Alchemists’ Council trilogy, explores the occult origins of the Rebel Branch’s revolution against the Alchemists’ Council. In a world where manuscript scholarship is the key to harmonizing the universe’s dimensions, the balance of power is about to be thrown off kilter.

Genevre, an outside world scribe currently inhabiting Flaw dimension, unlocks a forbidden text that will give the rebels an advantage over Council dimension for the first time in thousands of years. Seizing the opportunity, the High Azoth of the Rebel Branch, Dracaen, plans to use the long-forgotten alchemical formula to destroy the Lapis, the source of the Alchemists’ Council’s power. However, when his obsession becomes tyrannical, Cedar and Saule form a risky plan to unite rebels and alchemists, while preserving both free will and interdimensional balance. In choosing to switch allegiances, however, they risk the destruction of both worlds.

The story takes place over hundreds of years and across multiple dimensions without losing its intrigue. It carries the reader from the dark caverns of Flaw dimension to the bright gardens of Council dimension, as well as the outside-world protectorates of Vienna, Qingdao, and Santa Fe. Some scribes aligned with the alchemists become rebels, while some rebels become alchemists.

The complex allegiances are complicated further because The Flaw in the Stone develops several protagonists instead of focusing on one, as the first novel of the series did. The downside to having so many characters is less focus. However, the ethically complex problem of free will brings unity to the novel, since it is explored in different ways. Since any changes made to the Lapis in Council dimension affect all dimensions, the alchemists essentially control humanity and the outside world. Dracaen conscripts Melia and Jinjing to assist him in his plan to overthrow the Council in the name of preserving humanity’s freedom. However, in doing so, he compels both women to undergo an emotionally devastating alchemical ritual that will give the Rebel branch the upper hand. This leads them to question whether their commitment to Dracaen’s rebellion was really worth the cost.

Dracaen forces Melia to conceive an alchemical child, an entity of such power that he believes it will help the rebels destroy the Lapis. Melia feels “like a mere vessel, like a human alembic whose sole purpose was to incubate and then deliver a miracle child” (146). Her anxiety reveals not only her fear of pregnancy but her anger at being objectified. The power dynamic inherent in Dracaen’s relationship with Melia recalls recent public discussions about consent. This forced incubation, committed in the name of freedom, ironically makes Dracaen as tyrannical as the most dogmatic Council-dimension alchemists.

Historical allusions add poignancy to the Rebel branch’s revolt. Since changes to the Lapis affect the outside world, the Rebel branch’s attempt to eliminate it in 1914 more or less causes the First World War. In one memorable scene, Saule, Genevre, and Jinjing hide out in the Qingdao protectorate as the Japanese bombard the city, an allusion to the 1914 Siege of Tsingtao (Qingdao). Other historical events are alluded to implicitly. One attempt to eliminate the Flaw is said to have been “responsible for the Mongol Conquests” (188). Also, it is no coincidence that the novel begins in 1848, when a wave of social uprisings swept across Europe. Though this historical allusion is not explicitly developed, the date adds poignancy to the rebels’ struggle–perhaps an ironic poignancy, given that outside world events are only reflections of the harmony within Council dimension. Does this reduce the free agency of the human beings who participated in these events?

Masson’s scholarly knowledge of alchemical manuscripts lends the world she has constructed a certain authenticity. For example, she bases Ilex and Melia’s mutual conjunction upon the alchemical concept of the Rebis, a man and woman combined into a single individual. Her training as a medievalist comes across in her writing style, which is formal and academic.

The Flaw in the Stone fills in many of the unanswered questions readers are left with at the end of The Alchemists’ Council. In a pleasant surprise, the novel’s timeline continues into the twenty-first century, bringing the action up to date with the end of the first book and setting up the final book of the trilogy.

 

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At the Blue Met: The Children of Mary Shelley

This past literary season, I attended several events, including the Blue Metropolis festival and Le Congrès Boreal. Posts on each event are forthcoming. Today’s post is about the panel discussion I attended at Blue Met entitled “The Children of Mary Shelley.”

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

Frankenstein, which celebrates its 200th publication anniversary this year, has often been called the first science fiction novel. While Frankenstein’s monster is a recognizable figure in pop culture, it has its origin in the nested epistolary narratives of Shelley’s Gothic bildungsroman. To what extent can today’s science fiction trace its roots back to Frankenstein, given the vital, diversified, and increasingly popular genre it is today?

The moderator, Su J. Sokol, asked the panelists what was so groundbreaking about Frankenstein when it first appeared in print in 1818. Was it the first SF novel?

Amal el-Mohtar, the first panelist, responded that it was certainly “a first,” even if not “the first” SF novel. She referenced Awaj bin Anfaq, North African alien contact story written in the thirteenth century, to suggest that science fiction has much earlier, non-Western origins. However, there is something to be gained, she said, in tracing SF’s origins back to Mary Shelley, since women authors tend to be underrepresented in SF, a genre often defined by how “STEM-y” it is.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun could qualify as science fiction avant la lettre, so I would concur with Amal: Frankenstein is by no means “the first” SF novel, even in the West. But it remains a politically meaningful gesture to trace the genre’s origin’s back to Mary Shelley.

Melissa Yuan-Innes, the second panelist, made the interesting point that Frankenstein is not terribly “STEM-y” when you look at it closely. Though there is some (pseudo)science in what Victor does to reanimate the dead, he is highly irresponsible ethically. Furthermore, he works in isolation, while scientists typically work in research teams, sharing the results of their knowledge. Perhaps it is this isolation that makes Victor’s experiments with reanimating the dead seem so wrong.

David Demchuk, the third panelist, dissented. He paraphrased Samuel “Chip” Delaney’s observation that Frankenstein isn’t really science fiction at all–it’s Gothic fiction. The book is less about hard scientific inquiry and more about an ethical question: “How do you imbue something with the spark of life, and if you do that, what is your responsibility?”

David also pointed out that Victor tends to look towards past knowledge, such as alchemy and the works of Paracelsus and Galen. However, science fiction is a genre that typically looks toward the future. Thus, Frankenstein exists simultaneously as a past-focused Gothic novel and future-oriented proto-science fiction novel; it stands at a crossroads between old and new ways of understanding nature.

Listening to the panelists, I remembered just how different the novel is from various Frankenstein films. Amal pointed out that the monster’s interiority is mediated through several levels of epistolary narration, which is usually lost on film. (As an aside, I remember that the Frankenstein episode on the 90s children’s TV show Wishbone showed the framing narrative, which takes place in the Arctic.)

The monster’s self-education is another feature of the novel that doesn’t get enough attention. In Shelley’s novel, the monster learns how to speak clearly and in an erudite fashion by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Though he may be ugly, he speaks like a rational soul. Melissa underlined this point, stating that the monster’s physical ugliness should not be taken to correspond with an ugly morality, just as Victor’s handsomeness does not mean he is a moral person.

What really interested me was when Amal pointed out that feminist scholars have interpreted the monster’s self-education as an analogy for the reality of women’s education at the time. Mary Shelley was self-taught and read novels on her own because women were denied the full education men received. Furthermore, at the time it was thought that women should be discouraged from reading, because reading novels “inflamed” women’s minds, much like reading Milton “inflames” the monster’s mind. But really, the reason the monster acts violently is because of educational neglect, suggesting how detrimental the neglect of women’s education can also be.

This argument appealed to me because I’d assumed most femininst interpretations of Frankenstein followed the idea that the monster’s story is an allegory of childbirth-gone-wrong. The monster’s education as an analogy for women’s education seems a more authentic analogy for women’s actual experiences, especially the experiences of a self-educated, literary woman like Mary Shelley.

All this goes to show that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not really a monster, but a creature who has suffered horrendous neglect. And it is Victor’s neglect of his creation that turns him into the true monster.

Overall, “The Children of Mary Shelley” was a highly productive and fascinating panel. Although the Blue Metropolis festival tends to focus more on literary fiction, I hope to attend more science fiction and fantasy-based panels at the festival in the future.

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