Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Burning Guest Post Experience: Abbie Hilton and Persistent Worldbuilding

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It is my great pleasure to introduce Abbie Hilton, author of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. Abbie does such a great job introducing herself, that I'm going to leave it at that, save for linkifying a few of her words.


Read on. Enjoy.


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Hi! I'm Abbie Hilton from The Guild of the Cowry Catchers podcast, and Mark asked me to do a guest post for Burning Zeppelin. My current podcast is a dark, nautical fantasy about pirates and banned books and unusual interpersonal relationships. I try to do some interesting things with gender roles and sexuality as well as ship fights and blood in the scuppers. The books are set in a pre-industrial world called Panamindorah, populated with creatures called shelts, as well as some species of talking animal. Shelts are derivatives of fauns. They have the two legs and tail of some type of animal and look like humans from the waist up. In addition, they share certain traits with their animal counterparts. In some cases, shelts and their animals have diverged in their lifestyles and evolution, while in other cases they live in symbiotic (or parasitic) relationships. In some instances, a shelt or animal species is extinct, leaving the surviving half with no counterpart. The only human-looking creatures in Panamindorah are shape shifters whose true form is a dragon. They were so powerful and long-lived that they became a menace. In the distant past, the shelts and animals of Panamindorah rallied and killed nearly all of them. The few that remain keep a low profile. There is magic in Panamindorah, but it appears so rarely that the reader may forget it exists. 

I've podcast another, unrelated series set in this world called The Prophet of Panamindorah. I've got a third series, Walk Upon High, that I've not yet released.
 
Mark wanted me to talk about the phenomena of a persistent fantasy world in which an author continues to work through multiple stories over multiple years. I created Panamindorah when I was about 16 and I'm now 33, so it's been around for over half my life. It was my second created world. For each new series, I move to a different part of the world at a different point in time, and I've written a number of short stories in addition to the epics. I'm the sort of writer who doesn't know what happened until she writes it. Consequently, creating all these stories gives the world a sense of history and texture that it might lack if I'd only outlined the surrounding story-scape. I also like to use ideas from actual human history in my books, and since I haven't published anything, I'm able to go back into the stories and tweak minor details so that everything remains consistent. This is changing now that I've podcast them. I've yet to decide whether that's a good thing.

Writing in the same world does have disadvantages. I've grown over time, and my world has grown with me. Prophet had a more simplistic world view than Cowry Catchers because Prophet is the work of my adolescence and Cowry Catchers is the work of my adulthood. However, it's still the same world with connecting storylines and overlapping character timelines. Walk Upon High is the story that connects Cowry Catchers and Prophet. I need to re-write it, since its plot and that of Cowry Catchers are currently mutually exclusive.

These are tangles you run into when you keep writing in the same world, but for me the benefits are worth the trade-ff. I'm more interested in plot and character than in world-building. With Panamindorah, the hard part is done, and it has been test-driven for basic flaws of logic. If I want something a little alien, I can easily find a remote corner of the world or a distant point in time where everything feels new again. It's fun and interesting to imagine how the events in the stories might be passed down in the world itself - how they might be embellished into legends or myths or even deformed out of all recognition. Staying in the same world allows me to build that kind of scaffolding.

As much as I love Panamindorah, I did not make conscious plans to camp in it forever. If I find a story I can't tell there, I'll go tell it somewhere else. However, Panamindorah has a lot of elasticity. I'm sure I'll wander to other places, but I suspect I'll still be returning to this world and its stories decades from now. As fun as a new friend can be, there's no substitute for someone who's known you your whole life.


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As I said when I first asked Abbie to do this guest post, I find the idea of writing in a persistent world a little alien. I'm the fantasy worldbuilding equivalent of Pa Ingalls, always driven to discover what new world lies beyond the next wrinkle of my gray matter. I hope Abbie's writing has helped you see a little of the other side.


And, in case I haven't said it enough, check out Abbie's stuff! Of all the many, many podcasts in my stable right now, The Guild of the Cowry Catchers is the one I look forward to most, and I listen to a lot of great podcasts, so that's saying a lot.


So, thanks again, Abbie Hilton. And the rest of you...


You know, I really need a sendoff that doesn't make me want to throw up. A topic for another day. Goodnight, folks.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

And In This Corner

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According to the New York Times, there are forces at work to make jousting the next extreme sport.

Jousting.

The world is a strange, strange place. I love it. Also, I desperately need to get myself to one of these jousting tournaments. It doesn't sounds like my scene - partly severed penises and all - but I've got to go, if only so I can say I've been.

Jousting. Wow.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Riki Tiki Byakhee

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I don't often write about the Drabblecast because... well... I have no reason. I just don't. Probably I should.

Today, I listened to Episode 170, Part One of Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear's Mongoose. And, woah. Woah woah woah woah woah.


Woah.


Let me break it down for you: in a grim and gritty space opera future, monsters with the common names of Lewis Carroll creatures  (and the scientific names of scientific garbledy-gook) will plague our space ships and space stations. Only with tamed monsters called Cheshires - for their ability to selective phase their bodies in and out of our universe to varying degrees - can heroic exterminators hunt these things down. You see, it starts with small ones, but then the bigger ones come to get them, and then come the biggest... It's Lovecraft meets Carroll (with a bit of Kipling thrown in for good measure) meets Star Trek, plus grit. It's beautiful.

I love it. It's got grit and fancy in equal measure, just like real life. I firmly believe that if we lived under the constant threat of being eaten by terrible creatures from beyond space and time, the first thing we'd do is make up silly nicknames for them. It's the human way.

If everything I've said isn't enough to get you to listen to the episode, consider this: I listened to it twice. In a row. Just 'cause. I can't wait for the second half.

Check it out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In and Out of Whack

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It's not often that I abandon a book part way through. I am the sort of reader who develops a deep connection to characters and a need to know what comes next, and it takes a truly bad book-match to shake me off.

That's why I was surprised when The Wayfarer Redemption (by Australian author Sara Douglass) and I didn't work out. I'd been admiring the series for a long time before finally beginning the to read it; Sara Douglass really lucked out with some gorgeous cover art. The Wayfarer Redemption also came highly recommended by my father, an inveterate connoisseur of fantasy literature. To be fair, my dad did eventually note some of the series' flaws. He was able to finish the first trilogy, however, while I find myself fleeing without quite finishing the first book.

The Wayfarer Redemption is the first book of a trilogy, which is itself the first trilogy in a series of two trilogies. The series is plagued by some globetrotting weirdness. In Australia the first trilogy is called The Axis Trilogy and the first book is called BattleAxe, but in America the two trilogies are combined into a six-book series called The Wayfarer Redemption (actually the name of the second trilogy in the series), and BattleAxe loses its name.

Anyway.

The Wayfarer Redemption orbits a man named Axis, the BattleAxe (general) of an organization called the Axe-Wielders, the military arm of the Seneschal, the leadership organization of the Way of Axe and Plough, the dominant religion of a region called Achar (in one breath!). The Way of Axe and Plough follows the dictates of a god called Artor, who teaches that all forests are home to dark and unnatural creatures, called the Forbidden, and that the only good nature is subjugated nature. Forests must be cut into fields and the fields ploughed to produce grain, and the grain fed to humans, so they can produce more humans, who can cut down more forests, plough more fields, and plant more grain. Etcetera. Axis is the bastard son of Rivkah, the king's sister. As far as anyone knows, Rivkah died giving birth to Axis, which is part of why Axis's trueborn half brother Borneheld resents him. The other part of the reason is that Borneheld has a parallel post as the WarLord of the secular army.

Also coming into the story is Faraday, a beautiful young noblewoman, and a few other people, but those are details you don't need right now.

Anyway, this trio starts a tragic trajectory towards.... uh... doom. Axis and Faraday fall instantly in love, shortly after Faraday is betrothed to Borneheld. Axis discovers that he is a magic destiny baby and the Forbidden aren't so bad, Faraday discovers that she has to marry Borneheld to keep him off Axis's back. In some ways, it's a rather typical fantasy plot, but that doesn't bother me much.

What bothers me is the sense that the narrator's moral sense is totally out of sync with mine to the point that I don't feel I can trust her to do justice by the characters I've grown fond of. This story has a very involved narrator, clearly expressing an idea of who is right and who's wrong, who's justified and who's not. For example(s):

  • Borneheld is destined to die at Axis's hand, in a fight over Faraday, who only married him to keep him from venting his frustration on Axis, the younger half-brother whose birth killed their mother. Let me repeat this: Farady knows that she loves Axis and is only marrying Borneheld, and is lying to him about how satisfied she is with their marriage, in order to manipulate him. You know, if that was my life, I'd have frustration to vent, too.
  • Borneheld is considered culpable for his father's personality. Faraday is told by a magical being - basically a goddess - that Borneheld's line deserves to die with him, as far as I can tell, because his father was a jerk.
  • I have no problem with Rivkah cheating on her husband - it was an arranged and pretty dysfunctional relationship - but it bothers me that Rivkah's preoccupation with her second son at the expense of any real concern for her first son is treated as normal and laudable. It's certainly a realistic character choice for Rivkah to have more affection for the child born of love than the child born of circumstance, but this is not the trait of a good, loving individual. It's a flaw.
  • The big villain is the result of an ill-omened union between an Avar and an Icarii, the magical horned and winged people who the humans pushed out to make way for their own civilization. Despite the fact that they are aware of this possibility in prophecy, the Avar and the Icarii regularly hold Beltaine-style free love parties and expect the women to abort any children conceived this way. And it's the Acharites (humans) who are viewed as foolish and selfish.

Ultimately, The Wayfarer Redemption is an ecofantasy (something I really ought to write a post about some day), but not one that I can really appreciate. It's simply too morally flat. In Knights of the Land (see what I did there: the title changed) I focus on the difficulty of living in harmony with nature. The Knights are vilified for what they demand, and in the past they have alienated potential allies by demanding too much. In The Wayfarer Redemption, ordinary humans are the worst monsters of all, while the two races who do live in harmony can do no wrong.

That's not to say that there's nothing good about The Wayfarer Redemption. Axis's gradual realization that he's on the wrong side is well done, with the character's gradual slide out of one faith and into another portrayed realistically and interestingly. Farady has a similar arc. This particular storyline reminds me of some of the best parts of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. Despite its moral flatness, the setting is interesting and detailed, with a great deal of history and possibility.

In the end, however, it's not a book I can finish. It's not personal, but I just don't trust Sara Douglass enough to continue to let her occupy any of my headspace. She's written a very involved narrator, one with clear ideas of right and wrong, and those ideas are so at odds with mine that I just can't continue. It's not that I don't like to see good people making bad choices and bad things happening to good people; that is the meat and bread of storytelling. It's just that I don't want to continue reading a story where the narrator's sense of right and wrong - of who's a victim, who's a hero, who's a villain, and who deserves what's coming to them - is so at odds with mine.

It makes me too angry, and it makes me too sad.

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Today I just have the one question: am I a wimp or a crazy person, or has this ever happened to you?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Zeppelin... Zeppelin... Zeppelin...

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It's an echo. Get it?

Well, they can't all be winners.

My friend Rebecca recently introduced me to a wonderful new online phenomenon, Echo Bazaar! For the uninitiated, Echo Bazaar is a twitter-linked, browser-based online game. It's structured like a limited MMO. You go on missions, improve your character's capabilities, acquire items that you need to achieve your goals, and so on. There are things you want - money, admiration, contacts within various organizations - and there are things to avoid - getting wounded, going crazy from nightmares, scandal - and the game is quite typical in many ways. It's limited in that you don't run into other characters while exploring the setting - the interface is too primitive for that. There are certain advantages you can't get without engaging in various social activities with other players.

Two things, however, set Echo Bazaar apart from anything else I've experienced before: style and substance.

Echo Bazaar is more than just another fantasy adventure story, it's a surreal, mysterious, comedy-horror Victoriana explosion. Echo Bazaar is set in the world of Fallen London. It's like this: at some point in the mid 1800s, London is stolen by bats and dragged underground, where it still exists as Fallen London, in close proximity to Hell (which has an embassy to the city) and a mysterious entity/location called the Bazaar, a place where anything and everything is for sale. Mysteries abound: why was London stolen? What were the four cities to precede it and what happened to them? Where are all the foxes, anyway?

The second part is touched on in these three posts on the Failbetter Games blog. Basically, Echo Bazaar is remarkably freeform for a browser game. The writers of this piece of fiction designed it to have many and multiple branching paths and places where you can define your character's personality and backstory. How you define your character - the choices you make - influence which stories you have access to, which continue to define your character, and so on.

Basically, this thing runs itself the same way I run tabletop RPGs, and that's awesome.

I recommend this game with no reservations. It's based on Twitter, and a Twitter account is all you need to play. You're automatically connected to anyone you follow. Friend me at ElectricPaladin and I'll give you a tour.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Politics, Politics, and Politics

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I'm currently engaged in a fascinating discussion of art, politics, and horror over here on the Pseudopod section of the Escape Artists forums. In case you didn't already know, I'm the erudite (and handsome!) ElectricPaladin.

The discussion gyrates madly around a recent Pseudopod story, Set Down This, by Lavie Tidhar. Set Down This is the testament of an ordinary person who finds that he has become obsessed with the brief encounter between two men, an unnamed American pilot who fires a missile at and kills a group of Iraqis, and one of those Iraqis. The horror comes from the narrator's inability to escape his obsession and the terrifying ease with which human lives can be erased by modern technology. The creepiness of the "hillarious military YouTube videos" culture - the narrator's brother is a part of this world, which is how the narrator was exposed to the video in the first place - is an added bit of surreal and disturbing.

In a lot of ways, Set Down This isn't a great story. It's kind of a non-story, in that nothing happens, characters do not develop, and the world does not change. It's more a reflection or a character study than a story. If you like that kind of thing, you'll probably just think Set Down This is pure brilliance; if you don't, you'll probably find it a little frustrating. The story is redeemed, however, by excellent craft and a truly disturbing exploration of the subject matter. I'm not a big fan of non-stories, and I found Set Down This striking and interesting.

Anyway, the discussion: what I find really disturbing about the discussion is that Set Down This is being called political.

Political!

What is political about pointing out that war is bad? How is it political to acknowledge that the people who die in war are people, not faceless foreign devils? Is it particularly leftist of me to feel sorry for the people who get blown up, maimed, mangled, and killed across the sea? Since when is it political to say that war has consequences for everyone from soldiers to civilians, from the families of those who are killed to those who just watch the deaths on YouTube?

Now, in order to favor the war, do you have to pretend that it's a good thing? Do you have to imagine that the people who die don't exist, or that they aren't people? Is it now impossible for us to acknowledge that we sometimes do things that are bad in pursuit of a greater good?

I'm not in favor of the war in Iraq, but that's neither here nor there. I'm definitely a leftist - in fact, I'm kind of a Communist - but that's also neither here nor there. Do the people who favor this war really believe that admitting that war is bad is a leftist political statement?

Because that scares the crap out of me.

More to the point, the story is being criticized by a forumite who complains that he comes to Pseudopod to be "entertained."

I'd argue that the power of literature - especially fantastic literature - is it's ability to simultaneously entertain and do so much more. When you read, watch, and/or listen to a story you are entertained and transported. You live another life and learn how to emphasize with someone completely different. This expands you, enhances you, and has the power to change the world.

... I feel better now.

Anyway, if you want to join in the discussion, I'd be glad to have you. Otherwise, stay tuned. Up next, an intro to the craze that's sweeping the internet, Echo Bazaar, and then a guest post by the brilliant brain behind The Guild of the Cowry Catchers and The Prophet of Panamindorah (I can never seem to spell that right on the first try), Abigail Hilton.