Of brownies & of bogles full is this book

Tam o'Shanter 1

Tam o’Shanter (Abraham Cooper)

Online Scots Dialect Dictionary

Tam o’Shanter: A Tale by Robert Burns (1790)

Where sits our sulky, sullen dame

Where sits our sulky, sullen dame

WHEN chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

This truth fand honest TAM O’ SHANTER,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter:
(Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonie lasses).

O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi’ the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev’ry naig was ca’d a shoe on
The Smith and thee gat roarin’ fou on;
That at the L — d’s house, ev’n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday,
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou wad be found, deep drown’d in Doon,
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk. Read More →

Where I spend my time

WritersRetreat-GrantSnider

Who can resist Grant Snider?

Breaking the logjam

LogjamMen
Sometimes I’m asked, “How do you come up with these invented worlds so you can write about them?”

I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the real question should be, “How do you make these invented worlds seem real?”

I’m working on Structures of Earth, the first book in the series The Affinities of Magic. I plan to write several books in this series, and I’m approaching the first book as the foundation story, the prequel to the long string of stories to follow. I have a plot and a team of characters, and a good bit of the book written, but for the last while my brain has been raising alarms, saying “Stop. Something’s wrong.” Read More →

Books vs Banking

Aby_Warburg

Book & Art Collector: Abraham Warburg

Max_Warburg_1905

Banker & Patron: Max Warburg

From a review by Ingrid Rowland of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School by Emily J. Levine (Chicago)

For more on Aby Warburg’s fascinating life see here.

A school photograph taken in Hamburg in 1879 shows thirteen-year-old Abraham Warburg among his classmates, conspicuous for his dark coloring and the mischievous, bemused expression on his face. Aby is obviously a handful. He dominates this solemn group portrait as definitely as he dominated his boisterous and numerous family, seizing attention with his quick wit and his tempestuous moods.

Aby knew his own mind. At thirteen, around the time the photograph was taken, he made a deal with his twelve-year-old brother Max: if Max would promise to buy Aby all the books he wanted for the rest of his life, Aby would hand over his designated position in the family bank. Both brothers were as good as their word. Max Warburg, the illustrious banker, would later declare that “this contract was certainly the most careless of my life,” and it would cost him dearly over the years. By 1914, Aby Warburg’s personal library numbered 15,000 volumes, many of them manuscripts or rarities from the earliest days of printing. Max and the three younger Warburg brothers, Felix, Paul, and Fritz, continued to subsidize their eldest brother’s bibliomania up to and beyond his death in 1929. Aby called the resulting collection his Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or Warburg Library of Cultural Science.

Not long after making his pact with his brother, Aby Warburg decided to become an art historian. This was a brand-new profession in the late nineteenth century, a profession greatly facilitated by the new medium of photography, which enabled scholars to keep extensive, informative visual records of the things they had seen as a supplement to written notes. Aby collected photographs as eagerly, as imaginatively, as he collected books. He assembled his photographs for a specific purpose: he wondered how and why images could trigger such powerful emotions. Hamburg’s most famous Enlightenment intellectual, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had addressed the same question in his essay “Laocoön,” a poignant meditation on the relationship between beauty and suffering that focused on an ancient marble statue group unearthed in Rome in 1506. The sculpture, signed by its three Greek creators, portrays the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons wrapped in the coils of two gigantic deadly snakes, slowly suffocating to death. Lessing marvels that the figures can provide such pleasure with their beautiful bodies and exquisite surface polish as they writhe and grimace in their private agony. (Lessing, amazingly, might have worked from engravings and a plaster cast of the sculpture rather than the real object.)

Like his contemporary Bernard Berenson (they were born one year apart, Berenson in 1865, Warburg in 1866), Warburg took special delight in the sinuous lines of late-fifteenth-century Florentine painting and sculpture, aware that these works had been inspired in turn by the era’s reawakened interest in ancient art (including the remains of frescoed walls as well as works of sculpture in marble and bronze). Both men revered Botticelli, and Warburg also admired Botticelli’s contemporary Ghirlandaio. (Baroque artists such as Bernini, Borromini, and Caravaggio struck them both as monstrous corruptors of the classical ideal.)

Read the whole review.

Circus Train Wreck

Circus Train wreck 1Our farm is on the top of a hill on the edge of the Allegheny Front, and at one time a railway ran along the base of the same hill, descending the front. Every day we cross the trackway (now bare earth) at McCann’s Crossing, and pass the memorial for the Walter L Main’s All New Monster Shows Train Wreck of Memorial Day, 1893, claimed at the time it occurred to be the worst tragedy in circus history.

There are local verbal accounts, not all of which seem to be substantiated by the on-the-spot news coverage of the day.  One rumor claims the wreck was caused by one drunk Jake Friday, sleeping on the tracks (which may tell you more about the reputation of the extensive Friday clan in the area than about the disaster).  Apparently the circus elephants were harnessed to help pull the wreckage apart.  There is supposed to be a large pit grave for the dead animals at the memorial site — most of the circus horses died, as well as a few others.  Hannah Friday meeting the tiger while milking her cow is a still popular story, no doubt partly because the official memorial refers to it.

As the memorial declares:

All the animals that were not shot were finally accounted for.  The snakes were never recovered.

(A nice bit of writing, that.)

Excerpts from a variety of contemporary news accounts…

Read More →

The Technology of Magic

Thomas Edison's lab

Thomas Edison’s lab

The Fantasy and Science Fiction genres are distinct in several ways, but there is a certain degree of overlap as well. Both of them specialize not in things as they are but in things as they might be. They may differ in where the emphasis of the story goes — SF is notorious for typically making “the idea” and its consequences the point of the story, not necessarily the characters — but in this post I want to concentrate on what they have in common.

I’ve read SF&F all my life, and the two genres are cross-fertilized for me now. I like my SF best when it has moral characters as well as ideas, and I like my Fantasy best when its magical or supernatural elements are treated consistently, as though they were science.

It’s a truism in an SF story that you can change just one thing arbitrarily (time travel works, men live for centuries instead of decades, there are sapient aliens we can meet) and, if you can do an adequate handwave in the direction of scientific plausibility, the reader will accept it, as long as the notional basis is scientific (rational). For example, there may be religion in SF societies, and there may be powerful beings who seem to be indistinguishable from gods, but you can’t have real gods (supernatural entities) as agents in SF (though you can have a belief in them). That’s because god(s) may or may not exist, but science has nothing to say on the subject. That’s why they are literally “supernatural”, not “natural”.

What you must do in SF, however, is deal with the change consistently, e.g., if men live for centuries, there will be social and economic consequences. The story can be about those consequences, or they can be a background to the story, but they must be consistent, and a very great part of the pleasure of reading SF is the exploration of the consequences of such an idea.

Fantasy is a broader category. It accepts that those areas where it differs from quotidian reality may not be capable of rational explanation. Hence you can have supernatural entities (gods, elves, demons) as well as beings that might or might not be supernatural (vampires, werewolves, dragons). Read More →

Why the deep norms of the Science Fiction genre matter

Robert King - Blackhole the Pirate's Ship

Robert King – Blackhole the Pirate’s Ship

Eric S. Raymond offers an excellent article on the forms of the Science Fiction genre, and why it matters.

First, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.

This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.

One of SF’s central impulses is to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.

Having advanced this definition of SF, I’m now going to make a temporary concession to people who consider it too narrow by relabeling what it covers “classical SF”, or cSF. Those with a little historical awareness of the field will recognize that the classical period began in 1939 with Robert Heinlein’s first publication under John W. Campbell, the then-new editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

Almost anyone with any exposure to SF will recognize that much but not all of what is popularly labeled SF is cSF. The question I will address in the remainder of this essay is: why should we consider cSF normative? What grounds do we have for regarding a work that claims to be SF but is not cSF to be defective SF?

One reason is historical. Previous attempts to abandon the deep norms of cSF while preserving its stage furniture and surface tropes have not aged well. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and early 1970s was spent by the early 1980s. Later insurgencies within the field, notably the cyberpunks of the late 1980s and early 1990s, retained cSF’s assumption of rational knowability (and all that followed from it) even while trying to radically transform the genre in other ways.

The reason beneath that history is reader response. SF doesn’t exist in a vacuum; people who want fantasies or Westerns or romances know how to find them, and in general the kind of person who can be attracted by the way SF is packaged (spaceships and other high technology on covers, etc.) wants rational knowability and wants to play the kind of game with the author that is characteristic of cSF, even if he or she is not very introspective about that desire and not very good at the game yet.

This is why SF readers – even inexperienced ones – often experience violation of the deep norms of cSF as a kind of dishonesty or malicious subversion. They can tell they’re being cheated of something even if they don’t know quite what. Forty years ago this feeling was often articulated against the New Wave by complaining that its works were “depressing” – which was true, and remains true of a lot of defective SF and anti-SF today, but doesn’t get at the actual root of the problem.

Read the whole thing.

Behind every great novelist…

Behind every great novelist - Grant Snider

Why Game of Thrones isn’t fantasy

daenerys-dragon
How can I say that a series of books that includes dragons, giants, white walkers, and weir woods isn’t fantasy?

Easy — fantasy is a genre and it has conventions that define it. Game of Thrones follows a different set of conventions altogether.

Let me start with an easy example from a different genre — romance. A romance story in the modern world consists of two people, typically of opposite genders, who are attracted to each other and who face a series of obstacles that get in the way of their romance reaching a successful conclusion. A romance that doesn’t conclude with an HEA (Happily Ever After) ending fails the fundamental test of what a genre romance requires. Romance may be an element in other genres (westerns, historical novels, fantasy), but in the romance genre itself, it must fulfill some or all of the genre conventions to be satisfying to its readers. (Omit the HEA and find out what your readers think of you…)

Or take westerns. Westerns require one or more people, typically men, often of ordinary background, who rise to heroic accomplishment in the face of great odds. They might or might not succeed in their task, but they show courage and acquire moral clarity in the process, if they didn’t have it in the first place. They are tested, and good usually triumphs over evil, even if the hero doesn’t live to see the result.

I was contemplating what bothers me about Game of Thrones the other day, and it came to me — this is not fantasy, in the genre sense. Read More →

Respecting boundaries

Not my photo.  I was too busy shooing 2 dogs and 3 cats away.

Not my photo. I was too busy shooing 2 dogs and 3 cats away.

Part of the pleasure of living in a log cabin is the imagined sympathy for my predecessors here, especially in the extremes of cold weather. This is what it was like for them, I say to myself, as I throw another log on the fire (or turn the thermostat up) while I listen to the howling wind (and turn another light on). It’s a harmless indulgence to look upon the past nostalgically from the comforts of the present.

But every now and then I am reminded that some things really do never change. Not only is the Nth generation of the critter in my walls a constant, noisy reminder, but there are other dramas that play out which are no respecters of human boundaries.

Log cabins don’t need much maintenance, but it’s a good idea to perform an annual external inspection to look for new knotholes where old knots have fallen out. Most of the interior walls have secondary surfaces instead of bare logs, but we’ve found shed snake skins in the attic and it’s always been clear that other things may live between the logs and the wallboard, both predators and prey. My father-in-law was once doing the rounds with a bucket of cement looking for holes, and watched a black snake slither into one log before he got there. Left with the dilemma of whether to leave the hole open for the snake to exit again, or proceeding with his task, he cemented the hole (which tells you a lot about my father-in-law).

So, we came home yesterday to find this interloper in a crowded upstairs room, with one of our ambitious but inexperienced cats sitting next to it, wondering what he would do next. This was a young snake, maybe a foot and a half long, and he had his head hidden in his coils, like the picture, presumably because the cat was similar to predators he would encounter outside and he was hoping she would go away. Read More →