Doing My Civic Duty

General election in New Zealand today. This was the scene outside my local polling booth:

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Many people vote early these days. Understandable, but I’m more old-school: I like the atmosphere of voting on the day itself.

I also picked up some cheap vodka afterwards. Depending on how tonight goes, I might need it.

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The Hobbit at Eighty

The first Middle-earth book came out eighty years ago today, though at the time, it wasn’t a Middle-earth book. It was a one-off adventure story that was retrospectively shoe-horned into the world of The Silmarillion via The Lord of the Rings – a retrospective shoe-horning that continues to cause problems (and not just because it means Thranduil’s blond hair in The Hobbit is regularly brought up in debates about Legolas’ hair in Rings…). The issue is that, as with any shoe-horning, The Hobbit is not a natural fit with the rest of Middle-earth. It may allude to it – even, in the case of the Ring, profoundly affect it – but The Hobbit as of September 1937 was not written that way, and it shows.

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My own experience with The Hobbit partly reflects this. You see, I read it after The Lord of the Rings (my first copy of which I devoured until the paperback fell apart) – which meant that I regarded The Hobbit for years with a twinge of disappointment. Eleven year-old me wanted the grandeur of Rings, or at least more information on Gollum and Balin (especially the latter. I’d encountered the tomb in Rings, but never read about the dwarf as living). But it didn’t work out that way – The Hobbit is decidedly not another Rings, but instead a bit of whimsy and wish-fulfilment with some darker stuff creeping in at the edges. The wish-fulfilment angle is particularly amusing if you see Bilbo as an authorial avatar: a middle-aged pipe-smoking fellow trapped in a mundane existence who would secretly love nothing more than a bit of Norse mythology to turn up on his doorstep and sweep him away.

Looking back on my childhood disappointment with the book, I now not only see that I was wrong – The Hobbit is an excellent book when you treat it on its own terms – but that this feeling is actually surprisingly common. It is, after all, one of the problems with Peter Jackson’s adaptation: the discrepancy between an epic-scale blockbuster, and altogether more humble source material (in other words, The Hobbit movies try to treat the book as another Rings, and fail precisely because it isn’t). But curiously this was a feeling even Tolkien himself succumbed to: he re-read The Hobbit in the aftermath of The Lord of the Rings, found it “very poor stuff,” and began a re-write to make the text less frivolous. The re-write stopped just before the trolls when someone pointed out to him that the story he was now telling was no longer The Hobbit – a criticism that was, of course, entirely true, but which simply reflected the fact that the original was intended as something entirely different.

As a footnote to my Hobbit experiences, last year I also finally got around to seeing the old Rankin-Bass Hobbit from 1977. This may have its issues (not a fan of the animation), but the film from an adaptive and storytelling angle is far superior to Jackson’s version. It cuts Beorn and the Arkenstone, but apart from that, is able to squeeze a movie that feels like the original book into a mere seventy-seven minutes. Which really just shows how much padding ended up in the live action adaptation.

Goodreads Author

I am now listed as a Goodreads Author, complete with an “ask me questions” option:

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16013760.Daniel_Stride

So feel free to ask me questions. 🙂

(Note that I have read significantly more than just the books I am listed as reading. It’s simply that adding them is a work in progress).

Knee-jerk Masculinity in the Fantasy Genre?

This is going to be a touchy subject, but it coincided with something I was intending to write about anyway, so here goes.

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Writer Ed McDonald has done a couple of experiments on r/Fantasy. First he asked people to list their favourite magic-using character, then he asked which three fantasy characters you would like by your side in a demonic apocalypse. In both cases, the responses overwhelmingly listed male characters.

We have two further questions to ask, based off these results:

  1. Why are the results so skewed?
  2. Is this an actual problem?

Now, in regards to the first question, it is entirely possible that the skew reflects the demographics of the respondents. But after considering my own hypothetical responses to McDonald’s experiments (Gandalf for the first, undecided for the second) – the only female character I would have considered for the demonic apocalypse question would be Granny Weatherwax (Discworld). Basically, I would have contributed to the skew myself.

Why is this? It is probably true that most fantasy characters are male – a reflection, perhaps, of who is writing the stories, who is reading them, and market demands. I have seen it suggested that some people associate female authors writing about female protagonists with “girly, romance-orientated” stories (an association that is, of course, criminally unfair). It is noteworthy, however, that there is a genre tradition, from C.L. Moore to J.V. Jones (and of course J.K. Rowling) of female authors hiding behind gender-neutral initials, which suggests that the market does at least see it that way, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, male fantasy authors from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin have served up unlikely sausage-fests among their invented families – Tolkien gives FĂ«anor seven sons but no daughters, while much of Martin’s non-Stark nobility skews male to an equally ludicrous degree (Walder Frey has twenty-eight children, twenty-one of whom are male – Martin then tries balancing this by having a handful of families where girls vastly outnumber boys).

One occasionally runs into the excuse that fantasy is male dominated because it is frequently concerned with military-orientated affairs, war traditionally being a masculine activity. This argument wears a bit thin when one considers that (1) it’s fantasy. “Historical accuracy” does not apply – even the likes of Robert E. Howard can write a female warrior – and (2) McDonald’s experiment centres around magic-using characters. If hitting things with a sharpened stick is masculine, surely magic is a more level playing field? Female magic-users are a time-honoured part of the genre for as long as it has existed.

On the other hand, if one bothers to look closer at the genre, it isn’t as though there aren’t a host of powerful and interesting female characters out there (there was sufficient material for me to write a four part series – 1, 2, 3, 4 – on female characters in Tolkien alone). Even if we in the genre are often a bunch of blokes writing about blokes, we are at least capable of writing about women too. Why is it, then, that we as a readership (based off McDonald’s results) prefer to embrace fictional males over fictional females?

If I would hazard a guess, it might be that I as a male instinctively find it easier to slide into identifying with men. Knee-jerk masculinity, perhaps: nothing inherently insidious, no conscious desire to perpetuate a patriarchy or anything, but it is still something that does need recognising. This in turn ties into what I was actually going to write about today.

You see, a while ago, I was going through my short story folder (the last year or so has seen me largely put Old Phuul on hold while I work on shorter fiction), and I noticed that the protagonists were overwhelmingly male. I had no particular issue with diversity of ethnicity or sexuality – but, clearly, part of my subconscious was treating “male POV” as the default. It was purely a subconscious thing too: at no point did I sit down and decide to make the character that way. Nor did I have the experience I did with Wise Phuul, where I realised while writing it that the main character was (to my surprise) bisexual – I never encountered anything that told me that I had erred, and that I was actually writing a woman.

Is this a problem? In one sense, no. If the story works perfectly well with a male protagonist, I think it’s wrong to artificially go back and tinker with it in that way, not least because that is the very definition of tokenism – giving a particular character a particular ethnicity/sexuality/gender solely in order to get brownie points. If one is writing in order to get brownie points, rather than writing to explore characters, themes, plot, and setting on their own terms, then one has left the path of wisdom. Rather, what I have been doing since I realised my “male” default issue is to start with a character I know is female, and tell the resulting story. That way I can write a story that both shifts me out of my POV comfort zone, and is true to the character in question. The result, among other things, is that It Shines Bright Tonight, my 13,000-word sword and sorcery novelette, is told entirely from the POV of Svelia, a female guardsman.

Returning to the earlier question of McDonald’s experiment. Is there something wrong with an audience so clearly preferring characters of one gender? To be honest, no. Readers will identify with whomever they choose, and as suggested above, there are perhaps more opportunities to identify with male characters in fantasy than female characters. It is entirely wrongheaded to suggest that someone is at fault because they prefer Gandalf over Galadriel. I think, however, that it is still something we ought to be aware of – I, for one, found it a strange experience to confront my own biases head-on. From that point of view, McDonald’s experiment is a thoroughly worthwhile one.

For those who like reviewing books

A new initiative from my publisher, focused on those of you who like reviewing books:

http://www.inspired-quill.com/reviewers

50/25/5 Reading Challenge: August

Only one completed read for August:

  • Blood of Elves, by Andrej Sapkowski.

As indicated earlier, August was a productive month for writing. Less so for reading.

A Strange Inverse: US and NZ politics

Every political culture has its strange little rules: patterns and correlations that may or may not have anything to do with each other. Today I thought I would share one that very rarely gets mentioned – the habit of New Zealand voters of ideologically opposing the party that currently holds America’s White House.

More specifically, both New Zealand and the United States have a broadly leftist party and a broadly rightist party: Labour and the Democrats, National and the Republicans. The key is that when there is a Democratic US President, New Zealand generally elects National Governments, while when there is a Republican US President, Labour does better.

Consider the evidence. There have been twenty-four New Zealand elections since the Second World War (the twenty-fifth is being held next month).

  • 2014: Democrats and National
  • 2011: Democrats and National
  • 2008: Republicans and National
  • 2005: Republicans and Labour
  • 2002: Republicans and Labour
  • 1999: Democrats and Labour
  • 1996: Democrats and National
  • 1993: Democrats and National
  • 1990: Republicans and National
  • 1987: Republicans and Labour
  • 1984: Republicans and Labour
  • 1981: Republicans and National
  • 1978: Democrats and National
  • 1975: Republicans and National
  • 1972: Republicans and Labour
  • 1969: Republicans and National
  • 1966: Democrats and National
  • 1963: Democrats and National
  • 1960: Republicans and National
  • 1957: Republicans and Labour
  • 1954: Republicans and National
  • 1951: Democrats and National
  • 1949: Democrats and National
  • 1946: Democrats and Labour

This gives us:

  • Nine elections where National wins with a Democrat
  • Two elections where Labour wins with a Democrat
  • Seven elections where National wins with a Republican
  • Six elections where Labour wins with a Republican

But, wait, there’s more. You see, there were two elections (1960 and 2008) where New Zealand changed governments after America had also voted for change, but before the new President had been sworn in. If rather than focusing on the current incumbent, we apply the test of which party had been most recently elected to the White House, the figures become:

  • Eleven elections where National wins with a Democrat
  • Two elections where Labour wins with a Democrat
  • Five elections where National wins with a Republican
  • Six elections where Labour wins with a Republican

That gives us a quite noticeable seventeen out of twenty-four elections where the New Zealand electorate is splitting with the American one. This is more true of Democrats (eleven out of thirteen times, New Zealand votes National), whereas it is more even with Republicans.

But let’s take a look at the seven elections where the two countries voted the same way: 1946, 1954, 1969, 1975, 1981, 1990, and 1999. In four of those cases (1946, 1954, 1969, and 1981) New Zealand voted for change at the next election, while in the remaining three (1975, 1990, and 1999), America voted for change at the next election. There has been no occasion since the Second World War where two consecutive National victories in New Zealand have coincided with Republican Presidents, and there has been no occasion where Labour has done the same with the Democrats. National achieves this with Democrats, and Labour achieves it with Republicans.

What does this mean for next month’s New Zealand election? With a Republican in the White House, that makes a Labour victory more likely, simply going by history.

 

Why The Hobbit Sucks

While browsing Youtube, I ran across this interesting five-part look at the structural failures of Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation:

I don’t have much to add, beyond restating my own preference that theme ought to be paramount in adaptation.

August Writing Update

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August has been a highly productive month in the writing department (less so in the reading department):

  • It Shines Bright Tonight. My sword-and-sorcery/Lovecraftian Elephant Seal novelette ended up as 13,000 words (up from 8,000 at the start of the month). That’s 65 pages in Standard Manuscript Format – sticking the indents in manually (curse you, LibreOffice) took forever. It’s now at submission level.
  • An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie. 1900 words. A taniwha meets railway nerdism, which might well take the cake for obscure subject matter. Seriously: the story is a fantasy explanation for why the Kurow Branch of the New Zealand Railways never went beyond Hakataramea (the Branch closed in 1983). The piece is also at submission level – in fact, it actually got into the second round at Clarkesworld before getting rejected, something that made me very excited.
  • The Mystery of the Nineteen Bells. 850 words. A strange little side project that came out of nowhere, on campanology and trying to find meaning. Basically finished, but needs some polish.
  • Black Nykövä. This is intended as an independent story set in the Wise Phuul universe, and is a piece I am having to take slowly, since the narrator has a decidedly purple and poetic turn of phrase (think Dylan Thomas) – it is very easy to mess up something like that. Note that I didn’t intend the narrator to be that way; it’s just that I am a discovery writer, rather than a planner (or what George R.R. Martin calls a gardener, rather than an architect) – so I find stuff out as I go along.

Mages as Main Characters: A Comment on a Reddit Post.

Today, I ran across this post on the /r/fantasy forum. It purports to be a commentary on the difficulties of writing magic-using characters, and since I have already dipped my toe into fantastical magic discussions this month, I may as well keep going.101247-200

Suffice to say, I beg to differ with the author of the post. Quite strongly. I think it carries with it a host of dangerous implications, both in terms of fiction, and in terms of real life.

Let’s take the first point:

Without balance, mages are hammers and everything else is a nail.

Basically, the poster is arguing that without an author-imposed limit on magic-usage, mage characters will cheerfully use their powers to resolve any situation. To which I would make the following points:

  • Having a special ability to do something does not mean that a character will use that special ability in all circumstances. Sometimes, it’s straight-out inappropriate: being the best sniper in the world does not help you paint your house, which means the character is going to have to resolve their problem in other ways. After all, your character has a well-rounded personality, right? One that is defined by more than simply having a special ability? Even Howard’s Conan occasionally encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve simply by hitting it.
  • Balanced magic is another kettle of fish, but using RPG-style limitations strikes me as pretty unimaginative (not to say it can’t be done well, but concepts like spell points, or whatever, are pretty old hat). To take the sniper example again, there are some circumstances where the sniper could use their ability, but they wouldn’t, because it would be utterly daft to do so. You don’t shoot a parking-warden dead for ticketing your car – social ramifications restrain both real and fictional characters from doing anything they want.

The drawbacks of being a mage have to feature prominently if you’re documenting their lives in any kind of detail. 

I honestly don’t see the point here. Every real-life person who has a special ability will spend most of their time not using that special ability – often in situations where someone else’s special ability is more pertinent. The World Chess Champion may be a magician over the chessboard, but that doesn’t help him if he needs medical treatment – for that you need someone qualified in a different area, namely a doctor.

Every action carries with it something economists refer to as opportunity cost – the cost of not being able to do the next best alternative. If every action has an opportunity cost, by implication so does a chosen career-path. If you are training to be a doctor, that means you can’t be training to be something  else. Which in turn means everything has a drawback – mage or otherwise.

Fragility VS competency is always a tricky balance

The poster concludes that since a magic-user who can fight would be overpowered and thus uninteresting, best if the magic-user is some sort of weakling, who must shield themselves from physical attacks (or get someone else to shield them).

Where to begin…

There is not just a distinct lack of imagination here, but also a lack of familiarity with the genre.

Tolkien’s Gandalf is one of the most famous mages in fantasy literature (while actually doing comparatively little magic) – but he carries Turgon’s old sword, Glamdring, around from The Hobbit onwards. Why? Because Gandalf can actually fight if he needs to. Does this make Gandalf uninteresting? No, it doesn’t, because there are foes out there that are more than a match for our wizard.

Moorcock’s Elric is another sword-wielding spell-caster, to the extent where he is better known for the sword than the magic. Elric is actually a weakling in the sense that he is a sickly albino, in constant need of drugs (or Stormbringer) for sustenance, but this rarely comes up in terms of having to defend himself from attacks – his fragility is an issue away from fights, not in the fights themselves. Oh, and his role as a cosmic plaything means that the issue of being overpowered never comes up.

And that assumes you are actually dealing with offensive spell-casting at all. My own Teltö Phuul is technically a mage (he is a qualified Necromancer, after all), but he is basically an ordinary person who just happens to be able to raise the dead. His magic (if you can call it that) is only sometimes useful for dealing with combat situations, and even then he has to get creative with it. He’s not simply throwing fireballs at people (nor is he more fragile than the average person – he has his athletic side with swimming).

Mages might not be the most obvious romantic leads

This is where unsavoury real-life assumptions come in. Basically it amounts to the following reasoning:

  • Magic-users are nerdy weaklings.
  • Nerds struggle for romantic attachment.
  • Therefore magic-users struggle for romantic attachment.

It’s really a restatement of social stereotypes masquerading as literary analysis.

Now, there are examples of magic-users who do struggle in the romantic sphere – Rowling’s Severus Snape, for instance. Which is rather beside the poster’s point, since Snape’s problem isn’t that he’s a mage (his enemy James Potter is one too), but rather his own status as both a bullying victim and a bully. The issue is not that Snape is a nerd, the issue is the character’s psychology. A better example would be Väinämöinen from Kalevala, an immensely powerful mage who is unlucky in love – but as Merlin shows, even the very archetypes of the western wizard can have romantic interests. Similarly, while Gandalf is not a sexual being, Elric most certainly is (female characters throw themselves at him on a regular basis). And Teltö happens to be bisexual, and very open about it.

I am rather flogging a dead horse at the moment, but I think the real problem with the post is that it betrays stunted thinking about how a magic-user would interact with the world around them. Too much willingness to buy into tropes – indeed the post represents an attempt to justify clichĂ©s via an appeal to “reason”, rather than trying to address what is actually in the fantasy genre as written. While it is entirely possible to write about a nerdy sexually-frustrated mage who hides behind meat shields, and to write it well, the key point should be to try and make the character feel fresh on its own terms, rather than simply claiming that this is the logical consequence of magic-use in a fantasy setting.