Thursday, October 20, 2011

So Sick of Sad, Special Sorcerers

I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with me. No normal person should like alliteration this much.

In the world of things that I'm getting kind of sick of, I'm starting to develop a mad-on for, as the title says, sad, special, and oppressed magic users. They're a common - and, I will admit, sometimes incredibly well-written - trope. The most recent stand-out example is Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses series, but the subgenre is full of a wealth of excellent and not-so excellent works.

Before I continue, let me explain exactly what I'm talking about.

A lot of modern fantasy takes an approach to magic that mirrors the X-Men. Magic is (usually) an inborn trait, something that either can't  be repressed forever or can't be repressed without serious consequences for the mage. Mages are not a ruling class - rather, they are a hated minority. Their magical powers are only enough to help them survive, sometimes, with effort and great sacrifice.

I have a problem with this scenario. If you have a world where people periodically arise with special powers, I can't think of any reason that they would not ascend to roles of leadership. I mean, a lot of people hate fat-cat bankers born with silver spoons in their mouth, but these folks have been unseated in precious few parts of the world. Power (and talent, skill, and luck) may attract envy and animosity, but it also tends to attract more power. The best stories (The Twelve Houses again, is a good example of this) provide a good explanation: magic has limitations that its enemies know how to exploit, magicians have nemeses with their own, less objectionable power, ancient magician-kings were overthrown (which explains why they are so hated and no one will work for them), or whatever. A lot of the rank-and-file of this trope, however, never bothers with a justification.

Beyond that problem, though, I'm getting a little sick of it.

Perhaps it's over-exposure. This trope seems to have become very popular in fantasy since I was first exposed to it. Perhaps, though, it's something else. I wonder if I haven't grown out of it. As an adolescent, I was very caught up in being special. I worried that I wasn't special enough. I wanted to be assured of my uniqueness and value. I felt that the people who didn't recognize how wonderful I was were either right - which would have been terrible - or wrong, in which case they were oppressing me.

As an adult, I've realized that I don't really care about being special anymore. I'm content to be pretty average in a lot of ways. I have a purpose in life - several, in fact - and I'm happy to be used by them. I don't need to stand out in the eyes of any but the people who know me and appreciate what I bring to them and the world. Perhaps that's why the shine has worn off the story of the magic few.

Finally - and this is probably also part of my growing up - I think that there's something distressing elitist about the myth of the magic few. Let's look at this critically. Imagine that you actually lived in this world: there are a class of people, chosen at random, with magic powers. They can burn you alive with a gesture, invade your memories by looking at you hard, or bend your mind with a glance. There's nothing you can do to stop these people from taking what you own, coercing your obedience, engineering your humiliation, or ending your life. Remember that these people weren't chosen by a higher power with your best interests at heart. They aren't the best, the kindest, or the wisest. Some of them are great people and some of them are jerks. Their power is inherent, so there's nothing you can do to join them, ever.

You can't stop them, you can't compare to them, you can't join them, they don't deserve what they have, and they could be anyone.

Scary? Depressing? Both? Remind you too much of the real world?

Yeah, me too.

I feel that the story of the oppressed sorcerer is founded in the assumption that you are one of the special ones. But special has to equal rare, or it wouldn't be special anymore. Assume that you're a farmer caught in arcane crossfire, watching her home burn; assume that you're a merchant who just gave away goods worth a year of overhead thanks to a magician's charm; assume that you're a twelve year old girl who just caught a magician's eye - the equation changes. You start to think that maybe there needs to be some way to control these people. Maybe you even think that if the best solution you can think of is to put them in the ground, then maybe it's ok. Maybe it's the least of all available evils.

Now, all of this isn't to say that I don't ever want to read this kind of story again. What I'm looking for is a story that takes a more nuanced approach. I want the story to have a is well-built setting, of course, one that answers all the questions I raised above, but I also want it to provide multiple points of view on the problem of magic. Let's have the usual rag-tag band of heroic magicians and their hangers-on, but let's also have mage-hunters with legitimate grievances, people who have suffered at the hands of the "special few." Let's have a resolution that amounts to more than "the magic people should be free to do whatever they want, but don't worry - all the magic people who have been main characters are great."

When you find it, let me know.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Zeppelin Therapy

So, as you know, I have a wife, the Abigail. You may also know that my wife is a drama therapist. What you probably don't know is that the Abigail is involved in planning this year's National Association of Drama Therapists conference.

Awesome, I know.

Anyway, I wrote a guest post on their blog talking about Five Things Drama Therapists Might Not Know About Being Partnered to a Drama Therapist. If you think drama therapy sounds interesting - it's really neat, take it from me - you might find the post interesting.

Till next time.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Only the Tiny Plastic Dead...

Have seen the end of tiny plastic war.

A powerful quote from tiny plastic George Santayana.

At the end of the last school year I finally did it, something I've been tempted to do ever since high school.

I finally started playing wargames; specifically, Warhammer 40k and Warmachine.

I know, I know. I'm a story nerd - a filthy narrativist - who writes novels and plays sensitive, character-focused roleplaying games. What am I doing leading tiny plastic soldiers to their tiny plastic deaths on a not-so-tiny plastic battlefield?

The appeal is threefold.

Firstly, I need more hobbies that help me make friends. I've been quite isolated and lonely ever since I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Don't get all stressed at me, non-wargaming-friends-what-read-this, I know you exist. I just don't have very many of you. I agree that the old saw that writing is a "solitary art" is simply wrong, especially in the era of crit groups, web forums, the Internet, and NaNoWriM. Believe it nor not, some really high quality nerds play wargames, smart guys who like to think tactically and blend compassionate sportsmanship with a competitive edge. Nerds who like to shoot the shit, drink a beer, slaughter their foes, and talk about the newest Star Trek movie.

In other words - more casual friends, exactly what I need.

Secondly, there's a really fantastic secret world of art and creativity associated with these games. Seriously - you have no idea how awesome some of these things are until you've seen them. You'd never guess that some of the most hardened, beardiest nerds are creating tiny plastic masterpieces on their tiny plastic canvases. I'm nowhere near an expert in the art of modifying and painting soldiers, but I'm enjoying the process.

Finally, a lot of wargame worlds are very well-developed, with fascinating visual and thematic bits that I now have the opportunity to steal and transform. I've already had some good ideas that were inspired by the fiction and "fluff" of the games I've started to play.

Anyway, I'm having a good time. If you play 40k or Warmahordes and are in (or visit) the San Francisco Bay Area, drop me a line. I'd love to hear from you and meet up to play a game or three.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Subtle, Sinister Side of Sexism in Speculative Stories

Six S's sequentially! Seventy supplemental... uh... points!

First of all, have a fascinating article about sexual dimorphism in the world of WoW from Wired.

Also, check out this picture from the oft-hillarious, sometimes disturbing, and rarely safe for work Boobs Don't Work That Way:

Arguing about the portrayal of men and women in fantasy (especially on the internet) is something of a hobby of mine. In fact, I've gotten a little sick of discussing this, so I'm writing this post in part so whenever this comes up I can simply post a link and say "see this - this is what I think."

First of all, I will the first, second, third, and last to admit that I appreciate fantasy chicks. The Chainmail Bikini has a place of honor in my heart, alongside the Naked Powerful Evil Queen (the Abigail loves to mock me about this one), Swords of Unusual Size, and Extremely Flash Magic.

That said, you need to watch what you're doing. Fill your story (or video game, or movie, or RPG book, or whatever) with half-naked women and you are sending an extremely powerful message: this work is intended to excite and titillate the men in the audience. Women who like women may glean some enjoyment if they can get past the discomfort of seeing their own gender blatantly and unfairly sexualized. Women (and men) who like men need not apply.

This is not a message that I intend to send with anything I create. It's also not a message I like to see in anything I consume.

"But Mark," I hear you say, "you just said that you're a fan of chainmail bikinis and wicked sorceress-queens lounging nakedly on thrones of skulls!" I hear you say it through the Internet. It's a new app I just bought, and it's awesome.


The thing is, there's nothing wrong with sexualized fiction. Mighty thews and heaving bosoms have been with us for as long as there has been writing; check out an accurate translation of the Song of Solomon if you don't believe me. The trick is to consider what message you are sending with your work. Are you excluding someone? Are you only giving eye-candy to a segment of your audience? If the answer is yes, you need to deal with it.

This is where the chart I posted at the start of this post comes in. It may be intended as a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary, but I think it's actually useful as a guide for balanced titillation. What you need to do is this:

  1. Decide where on the X-Axis your story is going to fall. Is your work Realistic? Heroically Idealized? Sexualized? A combination of the two (for example: largely Heroically Idealized but with a few sexy bits that slip over into Sexualized or largely Realistic but with a Heroically Idealized climax scene).
  2. Keep yourself in that category for both male and female characters. Period.

I mean it with step two. That's where the magic happens. Balance between the depiction of the sexes is what sends the message "this work is for everyone to enjoy!" For every man covered in grime and sweat I want to see a woman who hasn't had a bath since she set out from Caer Amithar a fortnight ago. For every heaving bosom I want to see a mighty thew. For every levitating breast I want to see a buttock of a tautness that defies the durability of human flesh. And no fair skimping on the narration - you must describe everything with an equal degree of loving, sexy, titillating detail. If you aren't up for appealing to everyone in your audience, aim for the left side of the diagram and leave the sexy stuff to the professionals.

And by the way, you should probably take some of those examples with a grain of salt. I'm not into guys, so I'm not sure what actually qualifies as the equivalent of a heaving bosom or levitating breast. Do some research with your female-favoring friends of the male and female persuasion.

There is one more objection I hear a lot, usually from people who make more of their money in one or another artistic industry. "Mark," I hear them say (through the app), "the thing is, people who like to look at guys are used to this sort of thing and they'll buy our art anyway; people who like to look at girls (specifically, male people who like to look at girls) won't."

To this I say: grow the hell up.

Artists - quit being lazy wimps. You want to change the world with your work? Take a stand. The days of fantastic fiction being the purview of men and men alone are long gone - and good riddance to them. Don't hide behind the need to make money. I guarantee you that you can find a way to make a statement you can actually be proud of and also make a buck, if you try.

And all the girl-looking-at-male-people out there - guys, we can do better. I guarantee you that photons bouncing off words describing buff guys (or even - and I know this can be hard to believe - pictures) won't do you any harm. They don't cause eczema, hair loss, or cancer. Everybody else has had to look at what you like for centuries, and they're all fine. You'll live.

Before I go, I want to hear from you. Who does a good job of balancing appeal for those who like boys and those who like girls? What are some works of fantastic fiction that pass the Zeppelin Test?

For You, a Token of My Esteem

With this, I'd like to thank all of you who wrote such wonderful, supportive things on my last post. If only I'd been more able/willing to reach out over the summer, when terrible things were actually happening, as opposed to now, in the winter, when it's all gradually receding into the past.

Nevertheless, it's comforting to read your good wishes. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alas, Poor Audience

So, from the rather... arctic response to my last post, I guess that I have lost whatever audience I once had. I suppose that it's only fair. I did disappear for an entire summer.

So, update time.

Obviously, the summer was not the orgy of writing and blogging that I hoped it would be. I was rather put off my game in the last week, after school ended. You might have read about it in the news - remember how an airplane crashed on the East Coast, killing the pilot, his wife, their teenage daughter, and her friend?

Those were my aunt, uncle, and cousin.

My grandfather - the husband of the woman whose daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter were killed - died a much less remarkable death three weeks later.

Nothing about the catastrophes that befell my family actually prevented me from writing, but it made it a lot easier to retreat into somewhat less complicated pass-times like sleeping, hanging out with the Abigail, and painting tiny plastic spacemen (TPSMs for short). The fact that I ended up flying back and forth between here and the East Coast four times (half of them for funerals), getting a DVT in my leg in the process, didn't help any.

I wish I could report that I eventually rose to the challenge, like one of those guys who wins a Double NaNo despite having twins, losing his job, and being hit by a bicycle messenger carrying a duffel bag full of contraband weasels.

But, nah, I painted TPSMs and slept.

The Abigail tells me that it was ok - that I had the grieving process that I had to have - but I still feel like I dropped the ball. Or, to be somewhat more fair to myself, there was this totally awesome ball that I could have picked up, but instead I let it lie there. Is that ok? Sure. But it's not exceptional, and exceptional is what I want to be.

What am I working on right now?

Despite the creatively lame summer, I did manage to produce several short story ideas that I am currently attempting to realize in a rather slow and lazy way. I am also gearing up for National Novel Writing Month; I've picked my novel and am currently gathering my notes and preparing for war. I have decided to take advantage of the somewhat less formal NaNoEdMo to complete one of this summer's neglected projects: getting Knights of the Land fully re-written and ready to shop around with agents.

As for this blog, well, I plant to pick up where I left off. The blogging will commence anew, with new and better posts, more frequent and more interesting links, and cooler creative prompts! The universe is the limit at the new and improved (read: same thing, just more enthusiastic) Burning Zeppelin Experience!

*Cue fireworks; a teenage demon appears, prods me with her pitchfork and says "back to grading you heinous slacker!"*