Once again: I’m doing that Clarion West Write-a-thon thing. I write a lot, and you donate money to a great fiction workshop for genre writers. (I attended in 2006 and it was invaluable to my growth and my starting to take my writing more seriously, especially in terms of sending things out.) If you’d like to sponsor me, please go here. If you’re my top sponsor, you’ll get a cameo in the book… probably being killed in a terrible way (though the book’s been pretty devoid of any killing so far… probably a good thing, really).
I received in the post my copy of the anthology I mentioned in my last post—Allan Kaster’s The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 9—in the post the other day. They look great.
See the post I just linked (or here) for more on how and where to get yourself a copy.
I’m bearing down on my novel draft, now that the summer semester’s classes are finished. Yesterday I managed 5,200 words, and I only need somewhere between 7 and 9 more days like that to finish the draft. (Maybe less.) Then I can celebrate! Er…
Look for me on Beer Row, not Gin Lane. Actually, maybe Radler Road? Tiger Beer’s got a surprisingly good radler available in Korea now that’s been my summer drink (and my wife’s) for the last few weeks.
Er, but I was talking about my book.
It’s turning out to be more of a kaleidoscope than I’d originally expected: it started out as a novella focused firmly in the perspective of a single character. For various reasons, the story works better with me telling it from a variety of perspectives, and, seemingly, from a slowly-expanding set of perspectives. Since some of the points of view I’m now working with are individuals observing events they don’t really understand, involving other characters that they don’t yet know by name. The kicker is that the reader knows the characters and will understand the events to some degree. There’s a juggling act inherent in that as it is, though you can usually use telling details to identify characters for the reader, and weave observer introspection in through dialogue between those in the know in order to keep the character baffled without baffling the reader too.
Yeah, yeah, ensemble novels. Not a big deal, right? We’ve all read them before. One of my favorites came up in conversation the other day, in fact: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Now that I think about it, it may be a hidden model for this book, though I don’t do so far as Brunner. (There’s no “Tracking With Closeups” sections giving glimpses of dozens of random people in Georgian London, for example.)
But when you’ve working with exotic or nonhuman consciousnesses as your baffled observer, things get a little more complicated. Say you’ve got an intelligence-boosted dog (no, my book doesn’t; I’m thinking of that story of mine): how would it identify individuals? Assuming it retains a lot of its fundamental dog-mind architecture, it’d mostly go by smell, along with the sound of the voice, and not use sight as a primary identifier at all. Imagine a street scene as observed by a dog: the aromas and scents of other dogs, first and foremost, would permeate the area. Then food, other animals, and trash, I’m guessing. The human beings, shops, and urban geographic features would be way down the list of things the dog would care to notice, unless it had a strong reason to be tracking a particular human or looking for a particular shop or home.
And I’m not even talking about particularities of how we identify humans. For us, when a biologically male human being dresses as a woman—whether as a disguise or costume, or because he’s a transvestite or a transsexual who identifies as a woman—pronouns may or may not become an issue; identification by onlookers may become an issue, or may not. But your dog wouldn’t be confused: unless this transsexual somehow is giving off an aroma the dog has learned to associate with women—say, a certain perfume—that person is going to be straightforwardly male: its crotch and arse smell male, its voice timbre is male, and the clothes, makeup, falsetto, and wig don’t even come into it.
That’s not to say the dog is “right,” of course: that fluidity of gender and identity isn’t something I’m denigrating. Indeed, one could hardly write about the early 18th century in England if one were disposed to do that: the firm categories we hold up today for sexual orientation and gender identity simply weren’t so firm in those days. This is part of the richness of that historical period—the reason to be writing about it, because after all, if it were the same as today, why would one both to set a story there?
Still, it presents problems for the writer. Take, for example, in my story, mollies—a term for a certain type of homosexual in the early 18th century in London—used female pronouns even when not cross-dressed, which it turns out they only did on special occasions. There seems to be a sense that cross-dressing allowed individuals to partake of the qualities of the other sex—both for men who engaged in transvestitism, and for women. Women who dressed up as men and went to war, or out to sea, were celebrated throughout the period, after all, as I recently discussed here. This seems like a useful and interesting confusion, one that tells us something about the constructedness of our own seemingly-natural and seemingly-self-evident, hard-and-fast categories.
What I mean to say is that this confusion isn’t a bad thing that the dog dispels, by any means: the confusion is profoundly interesting and worth exploring. It’s just that the dog, unless it’s fully acculturated to human ways, has no access to that complexity and fluidity, and thus isn’t really subject to that confusion. (And why would one have an intelligence-boosted dog that is basically a human in dog form? What would be the point in such a character? Just as the molly is interesting for us because s/he confounds our categories of sexual orientation and gender today, so too the intelligent dog is interesting because it confounds our human-centric perspective. Both are useful and compelling, and both types of characters are in my book for a reason—indeed, for much the same reason: both to confound assumptions and enrich the story as a whole, reminding us that history is nothing like many of us like to imagine it was (and sadly a lot like how HBO imagines it was) and intelligence-boosted dog-consciousness would also be nothing like most of us imagine it would be.
But it does pose certain challenges to the author, and I don’t even mean in terms of depicting a nonhuman being’s thought process, so much as in how one presents a scene where that nonhuman character is interacting with humans. How are its interlocutors identified—in a way that makes sense to readers who’ve come to identify those interlocutors along far different lines? It’s not that difficult to pull off, mind you, but it does take a little finagling and some thinking. One could, of course, simply humanize the nonhuman mind in tiny little ways that are strategic—give them an interest in and penchant for learning names, for example—but that seems to be a bit like pouring water into the curry gravy just to make it easier to serve: it just sort of counters the whole point of the enterprise, if you ask me. After a while, of course, an equilibrium needs to be reached: my own nonhuman characters eventually end up redefining terms they’d gotten from the humans around them—”Master,” “Mistress,” “Mother,” “Goddess”—to keep things clear for themselves.
Anyway, I think I’ve pulled it off through other means. We’ll see how it comes out in the wash, I guess.