A highly limited yet entertaining quiz

I saw this link on Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander’s new blog, which I didn’t learn about until recently:

Fiiine, I’ll link to the creativity test that’s gone viral on Twitter recently. You choose ten words, and it grades you as more creative the more different all ten are from each other on some measure of semantic distance. 

I love Scott Alexander’s long, thoughtful posts about stuff, but the linked post above is not one of those; it’s a collection of links to whatever he’s seen recently that caught his eye, including the creativity test that (I guess) has become popular on Twitter. I’m not doing a lot with social media at the moment, preferring to put my emotional energy toward other things such as writing, so I wasn’t aware of that.

The instructions for this test are: Please enter 10 words that are as different from each other as possible, in all meanings and uses of the words. They mean nouns, single words, no proper nouns, no technical jargon.

Naturally, I found a creativity test that is basically a vocabulary test just irresistible.

Here are my results:

Your score is 94.44, higher than 99.31% of the people who have completed this task

civet
missile103
pillow9389
peppercorn729696
trust1069088106
quartz89968386103
vivaciousness8210710883105101
civetmissilepillowpeppercorntrustquartzvivaciousness

The average score is 78, and most people score between 74 and 82. The lowest score was 24 and the highest was 96 in our published sample. Although the scores can theoretically range from 0 to 200, in practice they range from around 6.2 to 109.6 after millions of responses. 

I’m not sure why only the first seven of ten nouns are included in the analysis. My other three nouns were “bicycle,” “solitude,” and “follicle.” You’re not supposed to use specialized vocabulary, so I didn’t put in “ovoviviparity,” though I wanted to. I thought “follicle” was not too jargony. If I’d known that only the first seven nouns counted, I’d have replaced either “missile” or “pillow” with “follicle.”

Now, is a large vocabulary plus an ability to decide whether nouns are “not like each other” a measure of creativity? Is this a sound argument? Beats me. Could be, I guess, though I’d offhand guess that this is a correlated measure rather than a direct measure. I could argue it either way in theoretical terms. This test does include the caveat that it “measures only one aspect of one type of creativity,” which certainly makes it difficult to refute. Sure, it’s probably to some degree a measure of one aspect of one type of something we could call “creativity.”

Scott shows that just plugging in a random selection of nouns right out of a dictionary, in order, from apple to appeasement, will give you a pretty good score.

Anyway, if you enjoy vocabulary quizzes, and who doesn’t, here you go.

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Starting with the Theme

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: Starting Your Novel With Theme

This is interesting because of the earlier articles about starting with character or starting with plot. At the time, when the author of these posts said a handful of writers start with theme, I wondered what that could mean. The post on Starting With Character included this bit:

In my work as a book coach, I’ve found that writers of fiction generally fall into three camps: those who start with character, those who start with plot or story concept, and those who start with theme...

And my response was:

Oh, the theme! I hadn’t thought of that as an option. That’s an interesting idea — starting with the theme. I feel like most of the time I don’t know what the theme is until a reviewer says, “Neumeier’s strong theme of whatever,” and then I’m like, Oh, right, that was definitely the theme.

So here we are, starting with theme. So what does the author of these posts, Susan DeFreitas, mean by that?

It turns out, not what I would mean.

Here’s what I think of when I think of themes:

Loyalty. Motherhood. Trust.

The overall theme of Jack Chalker’s Flux and Anchor series is: You can’t win, so protect yourself and those close to you.

The theme of LMB’s Barrayar is motherhood — what it means to be a mother. This book looks at the way various female characters take different approaches to motherhood and the way uterine replicators affect motherhood. Different aspects of motherhood are very important — protectiveness, unconditional love. Motherhood is the most important theme of this book.

But this isn’t what DeFreitas means at all! She’s not thinking of themes — she’s thinking, as far as I can tell, of setting.

And there may be many portal fantasies, but there are no other novels like those of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, because those novels were inspired by Vandermeer’s fascination with the uncanny flora and fauna of Fiji, where he spent much of his childhood.Along with that sense of uniqueness, novels built around theme tend to have a strong, particular aesthetic that run through them. It’s not just about who the characters are or what’s happening in the story, it’s about how the whole thing feels.

Fiji is a setting. Building a world based on that ecosystem means building a setting, not a theme. What this means is DeFreitas is defining theme this way: the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic. Or she is defining it this way: a particular setting or ambience to (a venue or activity). Both of those come up when you google “define theme.”

I was thinking exclusively of this other definition: an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature. This definition also comes up. I sort of thought this was exactly what anyone meant by theme when discussing a novel. It never occurred to me DeFreitas might mean anything else.

This means she is framing the starting point as character, plot, or setting — and that, I think, is correct. Those are the three fundamental choices an author has when starting a book, though I am sure there are many examples where character and setting are almost equally important, or plot and setting, or whatever. Then, no matter which of those three you start with, you may emphasize a particular theme.

DeFreitas says she rarely sees anyone start with theme (setting). I actually think it’s quite common, perhaps more so in SFF than other genres. Despite being a character-centered reader and writer, I started with setting for The Floating Islands. I played around with wildly different characters and societies and plots, YA and adult, in this type of setting for a long time before I settled down and wrote the first draft of the story. This type of image was the fundamental starting point.

I don’t know whether anybody would read this book and say, Ah ha, I bet the author started with this image of the setting and came up with the characters later and the plot after that. But so it is.

None of that is the theme, or a theme. The themes in this book are, as far as I can tell, family, grief and recovery, and trust. I didn’t start with those, exactly, except in the sense that the author’s worldview creates thematic emphasis in all her work. The themes grew out of the characters and the plot and my personal view of the world.

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The Top Ten Fantasy Protagonists who are just plain nice

Inspired by Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, of course! Let’s see if we can get to ten protagonists who are just nice people, though perhaps not as naïve and innocent as the narrator of Piranesi.

I’ll add, starting out, that obviously there are great heaping gobs of protagonists who

(a) are pretty decent people, like one zillion fantasy protagonists; or

(b) when push comes to shove, will grit their teeth and reluctantly do nice things, probably not very graciously; or

(c) are admirable, if not all that nice, like Nicholas Valiarde in Death of the Necromancer or, for that matter, his daughter Tremaine in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy.

I like all those types of protagonists, but this isn’t what I have in mind when I think of “just plain nice” protagonists. I think we all have some general idea of “nice” protagonists. These are people who go out of their way to be helpful and kind, not just sometimes, but nearly all the time. Not just to their friends, but to people who aren’t their friends. But not in a saccharine, super-sweet way that makes them victims, because ugh. Pulling off a protagonist who is not-saccharine-but-really-nice-yet-still-believable is no doubt a tricky balancing act for the author, though if it’s done well, the reader probably doesn’t notice the effort that may have gone into developing the character.

So, let me see if I can come up with ten protagonists like that. These entries aren’t in any particular order — just the order in which I thought of them.

1. The Narrator in Piranesi. Because I just read this one, it’s at the top. This character is actually just about too naïve to work for me … but he did work, because of the unique context. Kim nailed it in the comment to the previous post, when she said, “I loved that he ended up being right all along, despite also being completely naïve and mistaken.” Exactly! He was right and his view of the world was right, in a truly essential way.

2. Maia in The Goblin Emperor. As Irina suggested in a comment to the same post, and in fact Maia was the protagonist who leaped to mind for this list. Really, Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette pulled off a great character here, right at the far end of the probability curve for niceness, but not saccharine, and not particularly naïve or innocent either. I haven’t read the sequel yet. I mean … the protagonist isn’t Maia! I’m just not sure I care that much if Maia isn’t even going to be an important secondary character. If any of you have read the sequel, what did you think?

3. Marcus in The Thousand Names. This is such a broad, epic work, with lots of important pov protagonists and a very important non-pov protagonist. Of the lot, Marcus is the nicest. He makes such an interesting contrast with Winter, the one I still think of as the main protagonist. She’s nice enough, like a zillion other fantasy protagonists; she’s my favorite protagonist in this series. But she’s not in the same kindness ballpark as Marcus. He is the standout there.

4. Kit in From All False Doctrine. This is one reason this book worked so well for me. Not the only reason. Also the beautiful writing. Let me see, right, here’s what I said in my review of this book: Sort of like a cross between a Wodehouse novel and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. But with demonology. There’s lots to love about this one, but without Kit, I don’t think the story would have appealed to me nearly as much. This is true even though the other characters are also very good, especially Elsa.

5. Cliopher in The Hands of the Emperor. Cliopher — another Kit, which is a little amusing; is there something about that name? — anyway, he is a really nice person. That is one reason it works so well when he takes down a corrupt institution or person or loses his temper in other contexts. Unlike most of the other truly nice characters on this list, Cliopher is also a genuine Great Man who reshapes the entire empire. liopher is a genuine Great Man, who re-shapes the world over the course of the book. In my review, I said, Unassailable integrity, diplomatic genius, vision, empathy, plus enough sheer nerve to invite the Sun-on-Earth to his home for a vacation. That pretty much sums up Cliopher.

6. Paksenarrion in The Deed of Paksenarrion. I’m a little surprised it took me so long to think of her, but you know, aiming a protagonist toward becoming an actual paladin is a neat way to justify making her really nice — on the edge of unbelievably nice — but not over the edge, imo.

7. Mirasol in Chalice. This is such a warm, fuzzy story. Very much a comfort read. I am just now realizing that books with really nice protagonists tend to fall into the comfort-read category for me. That’s not required, but it’s common. The main requirement is certainty that the plot will work out in nice ways, a different quality of “niceness.” Chalice has both qualities. It’s not free of tension, but I don’t think the reader has a lot of concern about the ending.

The new cover of Chalice really does not capture the warm feeling of the novel. Here’s the old cover:

Here’s the new cover:

Not a good change, imo. I don’t like anything about this new cover. The first one captures the feel of the story a whole lot better than the windswept, oddly positioned woman with the flowers on the new cover.

Kim said about Piranesi, “I kept being worried that the narrator’s innocence would be his downfall, and it would be yet another book about the horribleness of people and the meaninglessness of the universe.” I wasn’t actually very worried about that or I wouldn’t have enjoyed the story nearly as much, but I think it’s unlikely any reader would feel that kind of concern about Chalice. Part of the warmth of the story is the confidence that the story will end well.

8. Penric in the Penric/Desdemona novellas. You know, one of the things I enjoy about Penric is that the reader may forget he’s a priest of the white god, but Penric never forgets that. He’s a very nice person who likes to be helpful, but I particularly enjoy how he’s likely to sternly remind an opponent that it’s not nice to be mean to their demon, or whatever.

9. Fawn (and actually Dag too) in the Sharing Knife novels. Fawn is a bit naïve and innocent, but not nearly as much so as the narrator in Piranesi. Dag is a bit hardened by life, but not in the least cynical. Really, they are both just nice people. Again, this is a long-time comfort read for me.

10. Aras in Tuyo. I didn’t feel I could complete a list like this without adding Aras. I get that Ryo is the primary protagonist, and he’s pretty nice too. But Aras is the one who belongs in this list.

In poking at Google, looking for nice protagonists — much more difficult to find than “strong” protagonists”– I also saw references to Strange the Dreamer. I know some of you have read this. I really need to give it a try. I’m definitely in the mood for nice protagonists right now.

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Oh, this is priceless

A study on dishonesty was based on fraudulent data

The Economist, linked above, is behind a paywall. There’s a long excerpt here at The Passive Voice, which is where I stumbled across this link.

IF YOU WRITE a book called “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty”, the last thing you want to be associated with is fraud. Yet this is where Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University, finds himself, along with his four co-authors of an influential study about lying.All five members of the original research group admit that the data in their study were fabricated.

I don’t really care about the details. I’m just highly amused at the whole idea. I mean, disgusted, sure, but seriously, making up fake data about lying?

The authors say they were dupes rather than duplicitous. My instant response is: Sure. That’s going to be everyone’s response just because of the topic of the article.

Also, the “Gosh, no one I talked to is still at that company / remembers anything” defense seems suspicious on its face.

Ordinarily bad studies and scientific dishonesty and general methodological screw-ups don’t strike me as amusing in the least. But, although I’m currently reading a book about evidence and what it is, and studies that appear scientific but aren’t, I really just posted this link because it really is pretty funny.

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Recent Reading: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

The Ninth Vestibule is remarkable for the three great Staircases it contains. Its walls are lined with marble statues, hundreds and hundreds of them, Tier upon Tier, rising into the distant heights.

Well, that was different. In a good way.

Different from what? Well, from everything!

To start with, Piranesi is very different from Susanna Clarke’s other novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. That one, I listened to in audio format for practically an entire summer. It’s a real doorstopper. I’m pretty sure I’ll never read it again, or listen to it again, or whatever. This is true even though the language is beautiful. The story itself moves very, very slowly — which I can like, but audio slowed it down to a crawl, so slow it was really too slow for me. Until the ending, where everything crashed together at breakneck speed, which I enjoyed a lot.

Actually, in a way, Piranesi is a bit the same, in that it moves slowly for a long time and then comes together with a whoosh. But the whole thing isn’t even 300 pages, Amazon says. It’s basically a long novella. Epistolary, by the way: this is all journal entries.

Plus Piranesi opens with a baffling mystery — who is this person called Piranesi, where is this place, who is The Other, what is going on? The reader will understand certain things long before the protagonist, most particularly: The Other Is Not Your Friend. The only real critique I have is that wow, does it take a LOT of bricks being dropped on his head before the narrator catches on to this truly essential and extremely obvious fact. There are reasons he is perhaps less able to grasp the concept of “enemy” than you or I might be.

I’m having trouble calling him Piranesi, as that isn’t really his name, just what The Other calls him. Why is perhaps something of a mystery to the reader, though more of a mystery to the narrator. Almost everything is a mystery to the reader, and the narrator doesn’t even know there is a mystery about any of those things until quite a long way into the story.

So, yes, very different reading experience. Here’s another reason Piranesi is so different from JS&MN (and from nearly all other fantasy novels):

One zillion characters in JS&MN; just a very tiny number of characters in Piranesi. The protagonist is alone a huge amount of the time. This, oddly, is something I enjoy in fantasy novels. I liked this aspect of Merrie Haskell’s Castle Behind Thorns, and — departing from fantasy — Andy Weir’s The Martian. I liked it here too. I admire an author who pulls this off. In some ways a crowd scene is very difficult, but in other ways it’s definitely tricky to carry a whole novel with just one character on stage nearly all the time. I could add this to tropes I enjoy but have never used — writing a whole novel with essentially just one character. Actually, that would click right into the prison escape trope, which in fact is sorta-kinda the situation we have in Piranasi, in a sense. (A very limited sense.)

Of the other characters that we actually meet … hmm. I think there are three? No, four that I remember. A couple of them only appear once; another appears a couple of times; the remaining secondary character is the antagonist, a most unpleasant person, whom we see in snippets. But basically, this is a story with just one character, plus the setting.

I knew going in that the setting was a world that was really an enormous building. Things I didn’t know:

–The House is actually infinite, or as good as. Nothing exists outside the House except for the sky.

–There are statues everywhere, which contain meaning, maybe. Probably.

–The lower levels of the House contain a multitude of oceans.

–Birds are everywhere.

So, obviously, this is a setting-centered story. I enjoyed it very much. The narrator is also just a nice person. It would be interesting, perhaps, to come up with a top ten list of fantasy novels whose main characters are genuinely nice. This could easily be on that list. Despite the centrality of the setting, the unraveling of the mystery is also compelling. I whooshed through this story in record time.

I didn’t read any reviews until after I finished the book, and I think many reviews express the setting in oddly limited terms. A mansion! What a word to use when the House is infinite in scope! No, the House IS the world, and I’m pretty sure I’m right that the lower levels contain a lot more than one ocean. Hence the confluence of the Tides.

Anyway, that’s fine, but it’s not the most important thing about the House. The idea here, the metaphysical idea that underlies the story, is that, if you let it, the world can speak to you, and does. You and the world can be in a conversation. Here we have Piranesi, who has forgotten his past, and he really is in conversation with the House, which speaks to him through the statues and the birds.

This review offers this critique: “Once Piranesi starts looking into his past, the journey to the solution occasionally seems to be on rails, with new discoveries arriving reliably regardless of what Piranesi does, or whether he does anything at all.” But what else can you expect? The House is arranging for Piranesi to make those discoveries … or I think that could be plausibly argued.

Basic summation: This is quite a lovely story.

Right at the beginning, in the first journal entry we read, just as we join the story, the narrator writes, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

The single most important thing to know about the narrator, and about the story, is that this is also the last thing he writes, at the conclusion of the story. The narrator remains the Beloved Child of the House even after he remembers something of the past and understands how he came to the House in the first place.

I think that one detail sums up the story better than any review. Everything about the story would feel very different if Susanna Clarke had ended with literally any other line.

I know some of you have read this book. What did you think?

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Fantasy worlds that are not ordinary planets

As I’m sure you all have noticed, as a rule, fantasy novels are set on planets.

If you had time and money and perhaps some tough friends and possibly a boat, you could travel around the planet, which is, like any other planet, roughly spherical. If you did, you would encounter normal planetary stuff in roughly ordinary locations: it’s cold at the poles and (if the author is basing their planet on earth) deserts exist at roughly 30 degrees latitude. Tropical forests exist toward the equator. Presumably if you took off and headed for space, you would find space. Granted, sometimes the stars are not exactly stars; sometimes they’re personified, as in Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, for example. Or the sky is obviously not just space with stars and stuff, as in Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, where the sky changes dramatically depending on which polity rules a region at the moment.

Anyway, obviously Tuyo is not set on a planet. Plainly the world is flat. Or if it’s not flat, it certainly isn’t spherical. It might be Escheresque or something, I’m not sure. But definitely not a planet.

What are some other fantasy worlds that aren’t set on planets? I can come up with handful that aren’t, or that might not be. I can’t come up with enough to do a Top Ten list — I’m not sure I can come up with enough to do a Top Five, but I’m going to try.

So:

1) Tuyo. World is flat, or something; climactic zones are jammed together according to — maybe — the whim of the gods. Certainly climates are not created by ordinary planetary phenomena.

2) Robin McKinley, Chalice. This world seems to exist as small regions — demesnes — embedded in a matrix of chaos, or something. Each demesne is bounded in some important way to protect the area from bad stuff. Demesnes are very self-contained. That weird thing with priests of fire and so on is obviously very different from anything we normally think of as priests, with no evident religious connotation, but a sort of progressive separation from normal humanity.

These are the only two that I know for sure are not at all planets. But here are a few that seem iffy in various ways:

3) Andrea K Host’s Pyramids of London. This world is incredibly baroque. Although I think the world is pretty much a planet, so I’m not sure this counts as well as the two above, it sure doesn’t seem like the sun is the sun.

4) Victoria Goddard, The Hands of the Emperor. Sort of a planet? But that thing with time? And the personified Moon, and, and, I’m not sure.

5) Patricia McKillip, Song for the Basilisk. It occurred to me, while thinking about this, that it’s not clear what’s going on in stories like this. We see so little of the world that we can’t tell whether it’s a planet. But we do know that one can travel to Faerie (basically) where all normal truths about distance and time dissolves.

That one reminds me of:

6) The City in the Lake. I actually think this is a very reasonable choice for this list, better than several of the above. The forest plays exactly the same role as the faerie country in Song for the Basilisk, and we also get this oddly layered world, where different aspects of reality are stacked up. AND the country where the story takes place seems to be set apart from other regions, such as wherever Lilienne is from — not in the same way as the different demesnes in Chalice, but in some way.

Can anybody think of other examples of fantasy worlds that are definitely or possibly not set on planets? With or without ordinary space and stars and so on surrounding the world.

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Weird weapons for a fantasy novel

Bored with swords? Looking for a different kind of weapon for a martial artist in your fantasy novel?

Here’s a very interesting Quora answer involving a dart-tipped-rope weapon, with linked videos of the weapon being used.

This is called a rope dart, reasonably enough.

The problem with this would be that, if you put this kind of weapon in a novel, readers might not believe in it — an example of truth being less believable than fiction.

This kind of weapon might have several advantages. It should be relatively easy to get the materials and make one of these; it should be easy to carry it concealed. This kind of weapon would be unexpected. I imagine a rope dart would be difficult for an opponent armed with a sword to counter. A bow would beat this sort of weapon, though.

It does seem to me that a sling and a handful of good-sized pebbles would probably be easier to learn to use and would have a lot of the same advantages. But for martial arts coolness, a rope dart definitely beats a sling.

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And now for something a little different

I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction. A lot more. But I do like nonfiction at times, particularly when I’m working to make progress on a novel that I don’t feel particularly urgent about. In that sort of situation, I don’t want to read fiction because it’s too distracting, but I do want to read something because I’m not obsessed with my own project.

Sometimes I read nonfiction just to find out more about some topic of interest. I that case, style isn’t a particular concern. But sometimes, I pick up something on a topic I’m somewhat interested in just because the first pages are written in an engaging style. Every now and then I pick up something solely because I read something by that author and wanted more by her.

Let’s look at a handful of the nonfiction books I currently have on my TBR shelves (The upper right corner of the top TBR shelf. There are three TBR shelves, and I think probably something like 14/15th or so are fiction).

1. Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, by Lisa Jardine

At the end of the seventeenth century, a century and a half before the glare of electric street-lighting, the skies above London were dark at night. In that inky blackness, a blazing comet, spotted just before sunrise, early in November 1680, outshining the planets and the familiar constellations of the fixed stars, caused a sensation. A comet of such dazzling splendor would, it was widely believed, bring political and social upheaval in its wake; for a month, Londoners observed it through telescopes, tracked its progress across the heavens, and discussed its likely significance over the new beverages (coffee, tea, and chocolate) in the coffee-houses. In early December, two weeks after the comet had eventually faded from view, the furor surrounding its appearance intensified when a second, equally bright comet was sighted at dusk, travelling across the heavens in the opposite direction to the first.

I like this a lot. It’s a good story and well written.

I like nonfiction that utilizes narrative forms, by which I don’t mean narrative nonfiction like memoir or biographies – I have only minimal interest in biographies, as a rule, and less than that for memoir. I mean that I often find nonfiction more engaging if it provides narrative structure to the information it imparts or develops.

In this case, it looks like the author is building the scientific revolution within its historical context. Good. That’s really the only way to do it, and it’s also the way I prefer it, because history provides narrative context.

I wasn’t going to mention this particular nonfiction book, which isn’t on my TBR shelves because I’ve read it. But I think I will because, though it’s very different from the above example, it’s relevant in this context of using a narrative structure in nonfiction in order to engage the reader’s interest.

2. Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History, by Xiaoming Wang and Richard Tedford

This book is only 168 pp long, not counting indices and so on. The first 67 pp list the various canid genera and representative species, extinct and extant, of the canid subfamilies Hesperocyaninae, Borophaginae, and Caninae, with lots of illustrations of the whole animals, the skeletons, and the skulls, with text descriptions of the important characteristics of each species or genus. I found this fairly boring and just skimmed it. Then there’s a section on functional anatomy, which I know a fair bit about already because structural soundness is very important to me as a breeder, so I can tell you about the functional significance of shoulder placement and so on and so forth. Then there’s a section on hunting and particularly social behavior, because fundamentally canids (and hyaenids) are social hunters, while cats are solitary hunters, and this is interesting in many ways. (I realize there are exceptions. I’m talking about the overall clades, not individual species that are exceptions.)

Anyway, then we get to the last section, which places canids into a historical context. I will now quote a bit of the book:

From the already warm and humid conditions in the Paleocene, the beginning of the Eocene was marked by a rapid warming to a peak temperature more than 14C higher than today’s average global temperature. This extreme warming event is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or more colloquially, the Eocene Hothouse. With these warm conditions, the Eocene global climate was perhaps the most homogenous within the Cenozoic as a whole. The temperature gradient – the differences between temperatures along the equator and temperatures at the poles – was only about half as much as it is today, resulting in a very equable climate with low seasonality. The climate was so warm that even the polar regions could support a diverse and productive biota, including the miacids [early carnivore clade].

The warm and humid conditions during the Eocene – coupled with a high level of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane – were ideally suited to the growth of dense forests in much of the world. During the Eocene Hothouse, tropical forest conditions expanded to the latitude of northern Wyoming … lush forest canopies dominated much of North America … through a series of small, foxlike miacids, the proto-canids gradually emerged in the late Eocene … From the peak of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum more than 50 MYA, the first major step toward a long trend of climactic deterioration during the Cenozoic occurred near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, apparently associated with the initial appearance of ice sheets on the Antarctic continent. … …

… In midlatitude North America, the climactic deterioration initiated a process of progressively drier conditions and more seasonal environments. Plant communities at midlatitudes responded to this trend of decreasing rainfall by changing from high-productivity moist forests in the late Eocene to low-biomass dry woodlands at the beginning of the Oligocene, progressing to wooded grasslands and ultimately to large open grasslands in the middle Oligocene.

Now, what does this section do? It condenses historical changes in the climate and the plant biotas to a few paragraphs and sets the appearance, diversification, and trends within the canid subfamilies into this historical context. In other words, the authors finally provide a narrative structure for the canid family, a story about the opening up of the environment into dry grasslands and the repeated development within the canid family of cursorial, social, hypercarnivorous predators from semi-arboreal, probably minimally social, hypocarnivorous ancestral species as a consequence of that ecological shift.

The sudden increase in my personal interest in the story of canid evolution was marked. I read this section closely. After that, I was much more interested in the different genera and went back with far more attention to the early section of the book. In other words, for people like me, the authors started at the wrong place. They ought to have started with the narrative story of canid evolution, set the subfamilies into this story, and only then provided details about the different genera within those subfamilies.

Probably there are readers for whom the book is structured for maximum engagement. It was just kind of interesting to notice how providing any kind of narrative structure immediately increased my personal interest – even though I went into the book already interested in this subject.

I suspect that much of the nonfiction that I really prefer to read for enjoyment is going to have a narrative structure, even though none of it would be classified as narrative nonfiction.

Let’s take a look at the next book. This is another one I’ve read and keep going back to. It may surprise you that this is not about dogs. It is, however, about evolution. (Not all the books on this list are about natural science, or at least not as clearly as this one and the ones prior.)

3. Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw

This is possibly my favorite book about evolutionary theory. It’s readable, it’s concise and clear, and it’s correct. Also, the illustrations are amazing. Here’s how it begins:

Names are important. They’re a sort of code – an abbreviation, allowing us to communicate without ambiguity or the need for lengthy descriptions. Like any code, the only way a name can be useful is if it’s understood by everyone using it. In a small community, it makes no difference if everyone calls a Song thrush a Mavis or a Surf scoter a Skunk duck – one name is as good as another as long as the whole population can relate to it. However, a visiting alien or other explorer hearing the words “Bog bull,” “Butterbump,” “Mire drum,” or “Thunder pumper” could be forgiven for assuming they belonged to four separate types of animal, when in fact they’re all names for a single species: the American bittern. We all know that the single word “robin” refers to two very different birds on either side of the Atlantic. A butterfische in German is a Ruck gunnel fish in English, while a butterfish in English is a Medusenfische in German.

This one doesn’t open with a narrative structure, but it does open by playing with words. Grouw is going to argue that the inflexibility of taxonomic names leads to a problem in understanding what species are and are not. (She’s right.) She’s also going to argue that artificial selection of domestic species has A LOT to teach us about speciation in general. (She’s right about that too.) (That’s why Darwin kept pigeons.) (There’s a lot about pigeons in this book. Some really weird pigeons exist, that’s for sure.)

Also, I get a kick out of that “We all know” line. I bet this is something we don’t all know. Our American robin is in the thrush family, Turdidae. The European robin is in the flycatcher family, Muscicapidae. Also, there is a quite delightful little bird called the “pink robin” in Australia. Also, let me see, okay: red-capped robin, scarlet robin, rose robin, eastern yellow robin, western yellow robin, pale-yellow robin (come on, people! That’s a stupid name!), flame robin (way better!), white-breasted robin, hooded robin, wow, the list goes on and on. These are all Australian birds in the family Petroicidae. I do enjoy names. And taxonomy. For me, that’s a good, enticing opening.

This next book is quite different.

4. The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel

When she was four years old, Michaela DePrince saw a picture that changed her life. Then know as Mabinty Bangura, she was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone; her father had been murdered during the country’s civil war, and her mother had starved to death. Even among the orphans the little girl was an outcast, deemed an unadoptable “devil child” because of her rebellious personality and the vitiligo that left white patches on her dark skin.

One day, a discarded Western magazine blue against the orphanage’s fence, carrying with it an image from a mysterious and distant world. “There was a lady on it, she was on her tippy-toes, in this pink, beautiful tutu,” DePrince recalls. “I had never seen anything like this – a costume that stuck out with glitter on it … I could just see the beauty in that person and the hope and the love and just everything that I didn’t have.” She thought, “This is what I want to be.” Entranced by the photo, the little girl ripped off the magazine’s cover and hid it in her underwear. Every night she would gaze at it and dream. The image of the graceful, smiling ballerina “represented freedom, it represented hope, it represented trying to live a little longer … seeing it completely saved me,” she says. She yearned “to become this exact person.”

DePrince’s story is not just a heartwarming tale. It’s an illustration of a common and powerful phenomenon. …

You could hardly get more narrative than that. Postrel knows how to start a nonfiction book in a way that will appeal to a reader of fiction, or of narrative nonfiction. I think I picked this book up quite some time ago after reading some online article by Postrel on, I don’t know. Hmm. Cloth or clothing or something that I’m not particularly interested in, I think. Oh, googling around, I bet it was perhaps a review of her book The Fabric of Civilization. Anyway, that review or post or article or whatever was good enough that I picked up this book of hers because it wasn’t that expensive and I thought someday I’d like to read it. Well, I haven’t yet, but eventually I probably will. This is certainly an engaging opening.

5. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

Alexander von Humboldt was born, on 14 September 1769, into a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family who spent their winters in Berlin and their summers at the family estate of Tegel, a small castel about ten miles northwest of the city. His father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, was an officer in the army, a chamberlain at the Prussian court, and a confidant of the future king Friedrich Wilhelm II Alexander’s mother, Marie Elisabeth, was the daughter of a rich manufacturer who had brought money and land into the family. …

Boring so far! Obviously a narrative structure, but I did say I’m rarely interested in biographies. There’s nothing here remotely as catchy as Postrel’s biographical sketch of that little girl. I’ve read only a handful of biographies, and those largely because they were the only books handy and I needed to read something. (This was before you could store a library on your phone.)

For me, leaping ahead and starting the story with Alexander von Humboldt doing something interesting would be much more engaging. Well, flipping ahead, it looks like we get past his childhood pretty briskly, at least.

6. Ordinarily Well: The Case for Antidepressants by Peter Kramer

A Swiss psychiatrist, Roland Kuhn, invented the modern antidepressant. He didn’t synthesize a chemical. He invented the concept.

Kuhn gave the antidepressant era a birth date: January 18, 1956. Six days earlier, under his care, a forty-nine-year-old hospitalized woman had begun taking 100 mg daily of G22355, a substance supplied by the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Geigy. On the eighteenth, Paula J.F. was markedly better – less afflicted by what Kuhn called her “vital depression.” By the twenty-first, the ward staff noted that the patient was “totally changed.” An entry in the medical record read, “For three days now, it is as if the patient had undergone a transformation.”

Kramer is a very good writer of popular science. He understands the importance of narrative in drawing in the reader, as he demonstrates here, as well as in all his other books.

Along with books about depression and other such topics, Kramer has written a novel. I imagine that is also about depression and other such topics, come to think of it. It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing and I’ve never read it, but I’ve read all his nonfiction. This one’s been on my TBR shelves for a surprisingly long time. I think I’ll leave it on the coffee table upstairs so I’m more likely to pick it up and start it.

This last one is quite different, but I hope I will find it almost equally interesting:

7. Everyday Things in Premodern Japan by Susan B Hanley

How well did the Japanese live prior to their industrialization in the late nineteenth century? The most widely held view is that Japan was a poor, backward country with a low standard of living, and when it began to industrialize, it had a lower standard of living than did Western countries when they began this process. However, though this view is held by most historians and economists, this view is rarely shared by the scholars who study the lifestyles and material culture of the Japanese. A reassessment of how well Japanese lived by the time they began to modernize their economy and the implications for industrialization are the subject of this study.

That’s quite boring. Also, I don’t care. This is not an argument that I’m interested in. I’m specifically interested in the actual things used in daily life in Japan prior to the modern era, which is what the title says the book is about. I trust most of the book will be about that.

I’m interested in materials used, architecture, food and cooking techniques, agriculture and agricultural implements, cloth and clothing, everything about premodern material culture. I’m also interested in the social patterns of the people living in the region and using those implements. This is the sort of thing it’s good to have in your head so you can write fiction without stopping to do a lot of research. This doesn’t look like a very interesting book to read, but it will, I hope, be interesting as a topic, and useful as a look at an example of non-Western premodern material culture.

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What is Silkpunk?

This is a Book Riot post, which, sorry, is always going to make me wonder if the author of the post is going to pick Watership Down as one of the quintessential examples of Silkpunk.

I am just never going to forget that Urban Fantasy post. Never.

However, this particular post about Silkpunk starts off by declaring that not every Asia-themed fantasy is Silkpunk, which seems uncontroversial. I mean, “punk” implies a very specific … something. What does “punk” imply to you?

Because Steampunk was the first subgenre that used “punk” this way, I think of everything with “punk” in the title as having a sort of 19th Century aesthetic tone, probably a rather gritty 19th Century tone. I think of steam powered mechanisms, even if the “punk” term is transferred to a different prefix, as in Silkpunk. That is, I think of fantasy novels in any sort of —-punk as being heavy on mechanical stuff in the setting. Big, clunky mechanical stuff, with gears. I’m not surprised by guns and railroads either. That’s quite different from a medieval setting with nothing higher tech than swords and wagon wheels.

So how about Silkpunk? I think my vague feeling was: Steampunk in an Asian-flavored setting, eg, Kristoff’s Stormdancer, which, I regret to say, I personally found unreadable despite the very promising inclusion of a griffin. But it’s Silkpunk, or it’s what I think of as Silkpunk.

So what does this Book Riot post say is Silkpunk? (Let’s assume: probably not Watership Down.)

book cover the grace of kings
Book Cover of The Grace of Kings

In the long history of speculative and SFF genres, silkpunk is pretty new. It was invented by Ken Liu to describe his 2015 novel The Grace of Kings. Liu coined the term, and wrote a post on his website to delve into its definition. Liu’s post begins with: “No, [silkpunk is] not “Asian-flavored steampunk.” No, it’s not “Asian-influenced fantasy.” No, it’s not…

Oh! Okay, well, I’m willing to accept that, but then I do think “Silkpunk” is a rather unfortunate choice of descriptor. I don’t think it’s quite reasonable to call a book by that term and then expect anything other than a guess that the book is in fact Asian-flavored steampunk. Let me click over and see what Ken Liu says Silkpunk actually is …

The vocabulary of the technology language relies on materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands: bamboo, shells, coral, paper, silk, feathers, sinew, etc. The grammar of the language puts more emphasis on biomimetics–the airships regulate their lift by analogy with the swim bladders of fish, and the submarines move like whales through the water. The engineers are celebrated as great artists who transform the existing language and evolve it toward ever more beautiful forms. … the “-punk” suffix in this case is functional. The silkpunk novels are about rebellion, resistance, re-appropriation and rejuvenation of tradition, and defiance of authority, key “punk” aesthetic pillars.

Ah! I like this idea a lot. Steampunk = a strong technological aesthetic based on 19th Century Europe; Silkpunk = a strong technological aesthetic based on a different, non-European, technological heritage. I think I’m inclined to withdraw my objection and agree that this is a pretty neat definition of a sub-sub-genre called Silkpunk.

I will note, with regret, that I also found The Grace of Kings unreadable. I liked the idea of it, but, hmm, let me see. Oh, yes, I remember why this book didn’t work for me. The story starts with two characters, boys or young men: the brave, physically competent jock and the wimpy, non-physically-competent non-jock. These two protagonists are presented in such simplistic ways that I lost interest after a chapter and a half. I realize a lot of readers loved this novel. I just couldn’t get into it, and well, there are a lot of other books out there, so I didn’t keep plugging away at this one.

Let’s go back to the Book Riot post … Oh! This is very interesting:

cover image of celestial matters by richard garfinkle

Celestial Matters is a book in which Aristotelian physics and Chinese qi theory are both factual descriptions of metaphysics in their respective parts of the world. It’s not a character-centered book, but it’s really interesting and fun for the worldbuilding. I should re-read it.

A few other books are mentioned at the linked post, so click through if you’re interested. Personally, I think I probably prefer Asian-inspired fantasy that is NOT Silkpunk. For example.

Under Heaven is hard to beat. I don’t think it’s flawless — I thought it needed another hundred pages at the end rather than a long epilogue, and one plot thread disappeared, which was disappointing, as I was interested in that thread. But it’s utterly beautiful. Unlike in The Grace of Kings, I found the characters deeply engaging from the first moments; unlike Stormdancer, I found the world immersive and real.

I’ve loved a lot of Asian-set fantasy novels. It would be easy to do a top ten list of my favorites. Maybe I’ll do that shortly.

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Knowing your narrator

Interesting post at Writer Unboxed: Knowing Your Invisible Narrator

So we’ve got this whole “third-person narration” thing. You know it already. It’s that “he/she/they” thing instead of the “I/me/we” thing. The narrator isn’t the protagonist or (usually) any of the playing characters, and so the narrator is kind of floating above everybody’s heads, nonexistent, as lives are lived.

I would argue, vehemently, that in a close third-person narrative, you can indeed consider the protagonist the narrator. In that style of third-person, the reader is aware of the emotional reactions of the protagonist, sees and reacts to the world from the protagonist’s perspective, is limited to what the protagonist knows about the world, and so on. This is all exactly like a first-person narrative.

In close third person, we read paragraphs like:

Turned out, getting shot and then having a huge hole torn through your guts was a great way to get just soaked with blood. Even after the mogui took the injuries, the blood was still there, saturating the rags of Tommy’s shirt, his jeans, even his shoes, somehow. Blood was okay, great even, if it was somebody else’s blood, and if it didn’t make too much of a mess. This was definitely a mess. No wonder these other black dogs didn’t want him in their clean car. It was a nice car. Upholstered seats. Gray upholstery that’d show blood real well. Tommy kept his head bowed because Ethan was glowering at him. Probably thinking that if he just killed Tommy after all, he could leave the body right here and not get any kind of mess in that nice car.

The other two black dogs would do whatever Ethan wanted. That was obvious. Don was stronger than Ethan; Rip was close, but a little stronger; Tommy could feel that, or his mogui could feel it. Didn’t matter, though. Ethan was for sure the one calling the shots. Because he was Grayson Lanning’s nephew and Grayson Lanning was Master of Dimilioc, yeah. Tommy got how that worked. He wasn’t going to make a single move that might make Ethan mad, not if he could avoid it. He bowed his head a little lower.

This is the opening of Tommy’s story for the new Black Dog collection coming out this fall. (I presume it’s coming out then, even if, no, not every story is written for it yet.) Anyway, this story is finished, though I expect I’ll wind up fiddling with it a bit. The point is, this is close third and so the reader is right with Tommy, and will be through the whole story.

In distant third person, I guess one might consider the narrator to be some invisible person who isn’t the protagonist. This is the style where the author writes, “Tommy thought that … it occurred to Tommy … it seemed to Tommy that …” and so on

In the real world, this is more complicated than the above distinction makes it seem, because as a rule, an author moves from close to more distant and back again depending on the scene. Not all the time, though. CJ Cherryh generally writes in close third all the way through her books. Perhaps there are some exceptions, but that’s the rule for CJC.

A writer who starts a book as the Instructor Bruno mystery starts may be sticking to more distant third most of the time. I mean, let’s look again at the opening paragraph:

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

“A man climbed out.” That’s as distant as you can get. The reader is most definitely not sharing this person’s perspective at all. You could consider the narrator an invisible person standing back from this scene, describing it to the reader.

I don’t, as a rule.

The linked post about invisible narrators goes on:

You, as the author, need to make sure you know who your narrator is and what they’re up to.

Since I’ve never thought about who my invisible narrator is, I don’t agree. Usually I stay in fairly close third most of the time — more so in more recent novels of mine, I think — and perhaps that is why the above assertion seems so odd to me. But it does seem odd.

Ask yourself:

  • Who is your narrator? (e.g. age, identity, experiences, likes and dislikes, personality)?
  • How are they related to the book? (Do they have any personal stakes here? Some sort of emotional connection? Why or why not?)
  • Why are they the one telling the story? (What is their authority, wisdom, or right to do so?)

And so on. The author is supposed to figure out this stuff in order to handle the narrator as a separate entity from the protagonist. I mean, seriously, this seems SO WEIRD. I have never pondered these questions. Never.

To me, it seems as though the post is confusing third with omniscient. Or something.

I will add that for me personally, this sort of question is much more relevant for FIRST person, not third. Yes, of course, in first person, the protagonist is telling the story. But when? And to whom? And why? For ME, getting those questions sorted out is much more important than thinking about some non-protagonist narrator in third-person narratives.

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