Monthly Archives: January 2014
The ground rushed to meet Jol as he collided with the white robed youth. Tangling together, the two fell to the uneven paving stones and filth of the street. Jol, disentangling himself first, leapt up, brushing away the clinging detritus with a scraped hand.
“Watch where you’re goin’ ya dung mouth!” Jol yelled as he kicked the youth in the stomach. Breath knocked out of him, the boy rolled onto his back, looking up at Jol with eyes red-rimmed by panic.
“They’re burning it! They’re burning the tower!” he gasped. Examining him more closely, Jol noticed the tell-tale signs that marked the lad out as a devotee of the Cailleach – the belt woven in imitation gold, the brooch in a stylised form of a bird at the shoulder – which explained his distress. Looking to the South West, Jol could see a faint glow, obstructed by roofs across the street, and, if he concentrated, he could make out a scent of woodsmoke above the ever-present stink of fish in this quarter.
“No concern of mine, lad,” Jol remarked.
“An that’s fer dumpin’ me in the muck!” he said as he kicked the prone acolyte in the mouth, a satisfying crunch of breaking teeth felt through the leather of his boot. Leaving the moaning youth behind him, Jol continued his walk down the street, looking about in the broadening gloom. Few people out of doors, he noticed, but that was hardly unexpected in a city so recently succumb to siege.
Passing a row of unremarkable warehouse fronts, Jol came to another by-way, this one somewhat larger than the previous, but still canopied by the leaning tops of the surrounding buildings, wooden frames obscuring the sky periodically as they pushed against one another. Looking into the darkness, he spotted his goal – a crudely wrought sign hanging below an iron lantern, depicting a well-endowed woman with the tail of a seal. Abruptly, the door flew open, and a thin, bedraggled man was bodily tossed through the portal, accompanied by a shouted “An’ stay oot!” The man, landing heavily on the sparsely paved road, rose to his hands and knees, whereupon he promptly, noisily, emptied his stomach. Jol moved past the drunk, as he sputtered and threw up once more.
Entering the tavern, Jol was greeted by a moist heat and a smell of stale sweat that replaced the damp cold and stink of brine outside. The entrance opened up onto a wide room, lit by several more of the blocky lanterns akin to the one seen outside, as well as a hearth along the far wall. A man behind the bar to the left of the door looked up from the tankard he cleaned, while a tough in a dark cloak eyed Jol from the darkness of the corner to the right. There were several more people in the room, all men, mostly at the few tables scattered about, mulling over cups of ale.
Looking about, Jol found the man he was looking for, and started across the room, followed by the eyes of the tough. As he was seated, looking across at the dour man occupying the other side of the table, the barman sidled up.
“What’ll it be?”
“Oh, have ya anything, say, from out of port? A bit of summer wine, or perhaps Northern mead?”
The bar man gave Jol a withering look, crossing his arms across a burly chest. “You’ll be lucky to get the usual, ye sneak thief, and be ‘appy you kin find any grog ‘tall, city the way it is now! If I’d any sense, I’d be shut up like all t’other stablishments!”
Jol favoured the bar man with a more direct look, noticing the leather apron he wore, coloured with dark stains of dubious origin, the balding hair and the cauliflowered ears.
“But then, dear Grady, where would all these fine, noble sons of Forc Tuile come to celebrate?” The man across from Jol scowled, and there were heard a few mutters around the room. “Furthermore, I hear that there is a ship in from continent, and, so rumour has it, it’s got quite the foreign cargo.”
“Anyone sailing here, now, be a fool. I tell ya, Jol, ya try an old man’s patience,” responded Grady gruffly. “One day, ye’ll try tha wrong body.”
“Yer finest grog then, Grady, and another fer ma friend here,” Jol said, nodding his head to the man across, and placing two copper coins on the scarred table. Silently, the man picked up one of the coins and bit it, revealing a row of mostly missing teeth.
“I may be a thief, but I know better than ta piss where I drink!” said Jol in mock alarm. Grady merely grunted and swept the second coin into his burly hand, sauntering back to his bar.
“You’d do well not ta be drawin’ attention to yerself alike that, lad,” Jol’s companion said, furtively looking about the room. “There be dark days ahead fer us Tuilans, I guarantee ye that.”
“Days, old man?” Jol snidely responded, though he did match his voice to the other’s near-whisper. “I’m not concerned about days, but about hours! The city is still in chaos – just on my way here I saw the King’s troops burning the tower of those foolish crone worshippers! I say, we grab what we can now, and get out of the city before these ‘dark days’ of yours arrive!”
Alarm in his eyes, the man across the table was about to respond when Grady arrived with the two pints of rum and small beer mix. “This’ll likely be the last time we see any rum a’comin in from aways, so you best enjoy, ye scoundrels,” said Grady, morosely.
After Grady was safely out of earshot, Jol went on – “I’m tellin’ ye, Alban, there’s somethin worthwhile on that ship. Why else bring ‘er inta port while the city be still burnin’?”
“Even if that be the case, lad, it’s no sense runnin’ around now, place as it is crawlin’ with soldiers still. An’ you musta heard what they’ve been sayin – ‘Any man, woman, or child caught thievin’ by the Jarls ‘ll feel the King’s justice.’ Now’s not the time for it.”
“More like his grace the King doesn’t want the competition, says I,” Jol responded with a smirk. “Asides, you’ve heard the rumours, well as I ‘ave. Not long for the shippin’ of ol’ Forc Tuile now. King’s set ‘is sights on a new port for ‘iself, closer to the mountain-mouth. Me brother’s aready headed down there, ta seek his fortune. If we’re ta seek any hereabouts, we’d best do it now!”
“Don’t be so quick with yer tongue, lad. There’s plenty a-man here in the Selky’s Cunny‘d turn ye in to them Jarls, right quick,” Alban cautioned, rubbing his thin moustache. “And we’ll see about this new port o ‘yorn. It’ll take more than the dictates o’ some conquerin’ King ta raise up a city as grande as Tuile, especially out o’ the marsh they got down Dheas Bhá way.”
“Bah, this lot don’t frighten me. ‘Sides, most are too deep inta their cups ta even stand,” said Jol, scanning the room to see if anyone looked to be listening. “I picked this place a-purpose, knowin’ it’d be filled with a bunch a drunken net rats.”
“Be’t as it may,” said Alban, “I’m not for stirrin’ up more trouble than comes to me natural-like. This time, lad, you’ll have to count me out.”
Offering Alban a long-suffering look, Jol quaffed his drink quickly, saying as he stood “Likely, ye’d just slow me down now, old man.”
“If ever ye get somethin’ a bit better than this, Grady, ye be sure ta let me know!” Jol said as he strode to the door. Grady, in turn, hocked and spat at the ground before Jol’s feet. Alban, watching Jol as he left the tavern, breathed a heavy sigh.
“Lad’s going ta run himself inta trouble, one of these days. S’pose it can’t be -hic- helped.” Louder: “ Another, if ya don’t mind, Grady.”
– : –
Jol climbed over the ship’s gunwale deftly, landing silently. He quickly scanned the shadowy deck. “Just like I was tellin’ Alban,” he thought to himself, “All the guards’re stationed on the dock. Likely lookin’ out for them maraudin’ soldiers.” Looking across the harbour, Jol was unable to see the other side of the city through the fog, some three and a half hundred yards distant. Turning towards the outer bay, he could barely make out the lit windows of the Keep on the breakwater. Little good that Keep did for the city, with Tuile’s army routed before the Sunset Gates. Occupied now by the enemy’s command, the flickering, muzzy lights seemed to have a mournful cast to them. Despite their twinkling sadness, Jol felt a silent excitement. The night’s fog only helped him here; less likely he’d be spotted from shore. Returning his gaze to the ship, he examined the deck more closely. A large cog, nearly 80 feet in length, it looked fit for the often-rough seas between Cothrom an Tír and the mainland. To Jol’s left, unusual for a ship of this build, was a cabin in the aft castle.
“Luck’s not failed me before,” said Jol softly to himself. He stalked across the deck towards the door, creaking boards muffled in the damp air. Working on a hunch, he forewent exploring the hold, suspecting his prize would be in this unusual cabin. There was a lantern hanging above the door, showing that there was no lock, at least on the outside. A soft glow fuzzed through a window off to the right, warning of a possible occupant. A quick peek through the foggy glazing showed nothing.
Jol tried the door, which, to his apparent luck, was unbarred from the inside. With a slight effort, he was able to shift it open, though it scraped damply along the swollen decking. Peering inside, he could see the inner cabin with difficulty, thanks to a lantern burning fitfully along the far wall.
“Guess there be no-one ‘ome,” Jol said, thinking that anyone in the cabin would have been alerted by the sound of the scraping door.
Moving inside, he quickly spotted a filigreed chest sitting on a desk below the lantern, covered in delicate golden tracery the like of which he’d not seen before. The rest of the cabin was blanketed in shadow, but he suspected that, adorned as the chest was, it was likely the most valuable cargo on the ship. Peering more closely at it, he saw that the lid was sealed around its edges by some sort of gum. He flipped the latch on the front and lifted the lid – the gum, which seemed to be a sort of wax, gave in to the pressure.
“Phwah!” cried Jol, recoiling from the smell of bad eggs that erupted from the chest. “If this be some sort of joke…!” Inspecting the innards of the box more closely, he saw that the contents were wrapped in a sort of sheer fabric. Folding it back, he saw a roll of parchment, sitting atop a pile of fine black powder that filled the rest of the space.
He threw the parchment aside. “I’ve ‘eard tell that lordlings ‘ll sometimes carry their jewels in a box of fine black sa – urk!” Jol’s self-directed musings were cut short as the twined cord bit into his throat, the strong hands holding it firm against his death throes. His hands, immersed in the powder, threw clouds of it into the air.
“No, heathen,” a deep voice intoned, “that ‘black sand’ is the jewel!”
Why Speculative Fiction?
In my last post, I made mention of the fact that I want to write “speculative fiction.” I feel like I should come clean about it – after all, isn’t sci-fi/fantasy really just a para-literature (that oh-so-dreaded epithet)?
While both genres do have a lot of baggage, there has been a push for the last couple of decades to raise the quality, with limited results. To my knowledge, Ursula K. Le Guin has been a vocal member of this, and it shows in her work. While I doubt that either genre will ever be fully free of their pulp origins, speculative fiction also possesses some particular strengths that need to be exploited, especially now. There was recently an article over on the North Star (which can be found here, for the curious: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11735) detailing the way in which sci fi can contribute to envisioning a better tomorrow, one not constrained by our neo-liberal present, which I would recommend. It also has a short list of quality reads, if you’re interested.
Furthermore, speculative fiction will allow me a modicum of freedom that I wouldn’t necessarily have if I were to write straight, “non-genre” fiction. While I am interested in telling Truth, it doesn’t necessarily mean I need tell truths, if you follow. World-building is fun! If I’m going to be doing this, I might as well enjoy it while I’m at it.
Thus, of course, we come to the elephant in the room. Isn’t sci-fi a bit, you know, immature? The reserve of the spotty young man, socially awkward, bordering on inept? Why willingly associate oneself with that? Truth be told, I still am an awkward young man, fortunately enough having left my spots behind. I feel a bit uncomfortable at the idea of writing some wide-ranging social critique, steeped in factuality, as the High Modernists were wont to do. I simply haven’t experienced enough. My same callowness prevents me from writing about some great trauma and its fall-out. Certainly, I’ve had some un-fun periods in my life, but I wouldn’t be so conceited as to think myself as hard-done-by as someone below the poverty line, or someone who has lived in a war zone. Until I have a proper story, I’ll stay away those forms of fiction better suited to it. Speculative fiction allows me to tell stories that I do have legitimate access to – those that deal in universal human truths.
Furthermore, I suspect it’s high-time that speculative fiction be rehabilitated. Now that it’s seemingly hip to be square (way-back play-back!), a lot of the old walls are becoming undermined – it’s more recognised that women like similar forms of literature, despite the various assumptions regarding suitably gendered audiences; more authors are looking to include lgbt/coloured protagonists and viewpoints; etc. So, at least in that sense, the timing is right. Also, if the success of television series like Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, or The Wire are any sort of barometer, larger audiences seem to be desiring better-written, more intelligent media (I’ve picked prominent TV shows in order to underline the mass appeal – there have been quality literary efforts in the previous century, but they had a more niche success). I’m not so audacious as to come out and say “I’m the man for the job!” or anything – I’m not claiming that I’m a better writer than Le Guin – I’m not, at least at the moment – but I think that it’s appropriate that more people should start making the effort. I’ve spent a great many years being frustrated by the obvious short-comings and missed opportunities within particular works and the genre as a whole, and so, rather than simply complain anymore about it, I figure it’s about time I try to fix it myself.
Some quick thoughts on Sexuality in Fiction
One of the hurdles I’m facing in starting to write works of fiction concerns something that, divorced from our strange and crazy society, should be a fairly straightforward affair.
How far do I want to go in describing sexuality and sexual acts?
Given that my aim is to write speculative fiction, with rounded characters, it seems necessary, at some point, that these characters will engage in sexual acts. How do I present them? I suppose it’ll just be whatever the situation calls for.
It’s certainly not that I’m a prude – if you’ve had the good fortune to come across a copy of Alan Moore’s 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom, it gives a good synopsis, aside from some questionable anthropological claims, of where I stand on the matter (and if you haven’t, there seem to be torrents available, though it is worth it to get yourself a hard copy). Despite that, I’m still the product of the society I’ve grown up in – Anglo-Saxon, predominantly Christian – which leaves me feeling, if only slightly, a bit reticent about the whole matter. I’m certainly on-board with the effort to “reclaim” erotica – prescriptivist though I might be when it comes to the written word, I think the realm of the censor is vanishingly small in any properly free and democratic society – but I am left with the question of how and when to engage in it. Ideally, should all adult fiction, where it is not egregiously inappropriate, include a modicum of the erotic in the future? Should it be relegated to those works that have as their main focus the erotic? Is the sexual meant only to titillate, or, should we instead seek to normalise it, and return it once-more to the common place position it seems to have held for our ancient forebears?
Back to the question of execution – I don’t imagine I’d trip up so thoroughly as to write something “porny,” as, of course, that’s not really my intention. While it might be nice to one day be mentioned in the Literary Review, I’ll aim clear of their Bad Sex in Fiction award. I am concerned about essentialising my characters, though. One of my hopes is to be able to write with a wider character palette than just the normal hetero/white set you see in sci-fi and fantasy of the past, but, by the same token, I don’t want it to come off as some ham-fisted affirmative action effort, either. I don’t want to have gay characters, for example, simply be an otherwise-blank canvas dominated by their sexuality. These concerns, of course, extend beyond orientation and cover aspects like race and creed, too. But sexuality, unlike race or (non)religious affiliation, is something a great deal more fundamental to who we are as humans. If I’m going to achieve anything by way of what I write, I don’t want this to slip by the way-side.
As I said earlier, I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out!
Most of you who know me well will have been subjected to this screed at one point or another. For the rest, welcome!
My vegetarianism has a bit of an idiosyncratic origin. I don’t especially care about animals – insofar as I can tell, from the little scientific literature I’ve taken the time to read, most of what we commonly call “animals” don’t have robust enough neurosystems to warrant the ethical stature we grant to human beings. We are finding out more about the way animals view themselves – the limited self-awareness of dogs springs to mind – but that still doesn’t really qualify. Dolphins and some chimps might, but then, most people don’t make a habit of eating apes.
Even aside from important qualitative differences in neurosystems, arguments along the lines of Peter Singer’s don’t really do a lot for me. Arguments like his – performing a calculus of frustrated as opposed to satisfied desires of morally significant beings (of which he does count the greater majority of animals, due in large part to their ability to experience pain – a decidedly problematic claim without appropriate evidence) – just doesn’t get off the ground if you’re not a utilitarian. At this point, I would count myself somewhere in the uncomfortable space between virtue ethicist and deontologist, so I’m definitely left unimpressed with some aggregate of tallies.
As a final statement on animals, though they don’t figure in my decision to pursue vegetarianism, in that way: it’s not to say that I endorse just any conduct regarding them. It’s an old idea, but one well articulated by Kant. We should have laws, and actively enforce them, regarding the welfare of animals (eg, not submitting them to the indignities of battery farming, not being able to shoot dogs in the street, and various other unpleasantries) not for their own benefit, but to decrease the risk of viciousness in the populace. It may be putting the cart before the horse, but there does seem to be a correlation between those who treat animals with disdain and those who treat humans in the same manner. It is a question of psychology as to whether the two spring from the same source, or if the first leads to the second. Barring proof of the correlation, to treat beings who certainly do experience pain, albeit in some limited manner, in an off-hand way is an undignified action for creatures like us. And that should be motivation enough to stay one’s hand.
So, if not les animaux, what then motivates me?
Humanity, of course!
Uncommonly known though it is, agriculture is a larger cause of anthropogenic climate change than all of our planes, trains, and automobiles (in that it is a much larger source of methane and nitrous oxide, the effects of which are far more potent than CO2). Climate change has the propensity to cause so much trouble for humanity in the near future that it is frankly stupid. Already, we are seeing a much higher incidence in large-scale storms and the migration of island populations to mainlands, directly in response to raising sea levels. And this isn’t anything, yet. I’ll not provide links here, but a quick search online by anyone who might disbelieve me will quickly corroborate what I say.
So, given that this is looming down upon us with such grimness, what are the choices open to us? Though I might not consider animals worthy of (full) moral consideration, I certainly do hold humans in such regard. It would be a strange calculus indeed to try and pick out just how culpable one individual might be in the changing of the climate, but, fortunately for me, that’s not the business I’m in. We more-or-less know how we are adding to the green-house effect, and, coupled with the projections regarding environmental and urban degradation, the ethical choice seems clear. It is imperative that we make some effort to curb this destructive behaviour. Now, of course, the best thing to do is radically re-orient ourselves, to switch entirely to more sustainable modes of life. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone with the gumption or even the where-withal to do that.
By comparison, it is (more) affordable to switch to a vegetarian diet, and quite easy to do. Compared with the average diet of middle-class Westerners (who are the primary culprits here), that of the vegetarian is far more healthy. There are few people who need to eat meat, and even for them, the impact that such few animals would be negligible. The main concern is that we end the aggressive use of battery farming, and the attendant production of corn to support it (itself a frightfully destructive practice).
I’ll grant you, my own choice is likely making a very small impact, but, if we are to sell this idea of “voting with one’s pocket-book” (and I am aware of the fallacy of thinking we can buy our way to equality), we do have to make some effort at it. Luckily for me, I’m both sound-of-body and wealthy enough that I can make such a change, but then, the majority of other people should be as well. This is just a small step in the effort to keep this planet habitable – and make no mistake, that is what is at stake here.
Chances are, the jig is already up, and despite whatever we can muster, we’re all going to burn anyways. Luckily for me, it’s the utilitarians who are worried about results.