Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Worldbuilding may start with something real you never imagined

So many cultural practices are literally unimaginable until you encounter them. Then they’re suddenly, vividly, real for you, as they always were for the people who grew up in that foreign culture.

One such example is ghost marriage, as seen in The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo.

I’m reading this book now; I haven’t gotten very far yet, but I can see the description and setting are strengths. This includes in particular the unusual cultural practice of ghost brides.

One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride. Asked is perhaps not the right word. We were in his study. I was leafing through a newspaper, my father lying on his rattan daybed. It was very hot and still. The oil lamp was lit and moths fluttered through the humid air in lazy swirls.

Here, in colonial Malaya, we have a custom where for example a concubine who has died may be married after death so that she’ll have higher status as a wife in the afterlife. Or, as in Li Lin’s case, a wealthy and powerful family wants her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Night after night, Li Lin is drawn into the “shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy . . .”

This is all wonderful background for this story. It is also an example of the kind of background that would be wonderful in a secondary world fantasy. You could take something like this in all kinds of different directions, in a story with a kind of Malaya flavor to it or otherwise. Perhaps widows (or widowers) could technically still be married, either to their own advantage or otherwise. I mean, think of this old custom from the Bengal region of India:

The death of her husband left my great-grandmother dazed. Afterwards, she did what most widows like her, Hindu and of high-caste pedigree, had to do to repent for the death of her husband. She scrubbed her hair clean of sindoor, the vermillion smear between the parting of her hair, initially put there during marriage ceremony as a mark to signify she and her husband were permanently in union. She donned a blanched white sari, an outfit she would wear for the rest of her life.

From then on, she would eliminate onion and garlic, alliums thought to conjure sexual energy, from her diet. She would stop eating red lentils for the same reason—these were, apparently, edible pulses as potent as aphrodisiacs. She would stamp out meat and fish, staples of cooking in Paschim Dinajpur, and stick to a rigorously strict vegetarian diet. She would be restricted to one meal a day, mid-day. At night, she would have puffed rice, khoi, with milk. Following this odd, constricting decree was culturally expected of her and other Hindu, high-caste widows in Bengal.

This is another custom that is utterly unexpected by a modern American reader. I mean, wow. Now suppose you build this into a secondary world, but also add a competing custom of ghost marriage that offers widows a chance to either still be married even though their husbands have died, or perhaps marry again in some other ghost marriage.

This could build such a rich and interesting background for your world, and of course it immediately presents many possible conflicts and problems depending on which way you take it.

I would personally draw the line at foot binding, though — a custom mentioned in The Ghost Bride, though thankfully not practiced in Malaya of time. One can do all kinds of things with gender roles and expectations, but foot binding was too horrible for me, at least, to ever put any form of the custom into any fictional world.

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The hardest of hard SF

Here’s a post at Black Gate about “the hardest of hard science fiction” — Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology…

I know this is a fantasy blog, but for this one I want to appeal to the third (and most famous) of Clarke’s laws, which is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” because I want to talk about the scienciest, most extrapolatey, most out there science fiction, which isn’t overtly different from fantasy except in aesthetic.

This comes from my musings about writing a story set in orbit of a neutron star, and also because I was recently discussing with a friend where to find the hardest SF.

I get a lot of ideas when I read other authors. I love seeing what science people know and transform into story, and I love seeing that unique kind of creative ambition.

Some caveats: When I looked in my book shelf for examples to show a friend, I came up with three authors and six titles…

The authors are Hal Clement, Robert Forward, and Steven Baxter. Of the six books mentioned, I’ve read Rocheworld, and I think that’s it. Hard-hard-hard science fiction is not really my favorite thing.

Nevertheless, even though I’m not sure what all suits the subgenre of “hardest of hard science fiction,” I do think there are several well-known titles that deserve consideration. Some were even lucky enough to get Michael Whelen covers back in the day:

Niven’s Ringworld series is quite hard, with plenty of emphasis on the science and imo enough characterization so the story isn’t offputting to character readers like me.

John Stith’s Redshift Rendezvous did all this crazy stuff with relativity.

Complex characterization is not this book’s strength, but I liked it. However, for me physics is never going to compete with biology, and so I greatly preferred this much more recent title:

Would James Cambias’ A Darkling Sea count among the-hardest-of-the-hard? It’s got plenty of physics in the background. Plus more complex, interesting characters — the humans rather less so than Broadtail.

While we’re on the subject of physics vs biology, I found the former plausible and the latter much less so in the highly enjoyable Seveneves, the only book by Stephenson that (dispite the rather implausible biology) I ever really got into.

Surely the Very! Detailed! Orbital mechanics and stuff means that this one counts as really hard, even though Stephenson never actually explained why the moon broke up in the first place.

Okay, if you’re into hard SF, what’s a title that springs to mind for you?

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Does conversation skirt the border of incomprehensibility?

Here’s an interesting post by Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex: CONVERSATION DELIBERATELY SKIRTS THE BORDER OF INCOMPREHENSIBILITY

Alexander starts off by quoting a post about autism and the problem with taking comments and questions literally when they aren’t meant that way:

If a neurotypical asks you, “What game are you playing?” they’re not asking you to describe the game.

They’re asking you if they can play too.

If a neurotypical asks you, “What are you watching?” they’re not asking you to explain the plot of the movie/tv show to them.

They’re asking if they can watch it with you.

Then Alexander says:

I don’t think this is always true – and when it is I would describe it as more of an open-ended attempt to start a fun conversation than a demand for participation – but I agree that it’s not just a straightforward request for information.

And there was some interesting discussion about this on Autistic Tumblr, which centered around: why would someone do this? Why can’t people just say what they mean?

And the best answer I saw – sorry, I can’t find it right now – explained that people were trying to spare their friends the burden of rejecting them. Say Alice is reading a book, and Bob asks “Hey, do you want to talk about that book?” Maybe Alice doesn’t want to talk about it. But the following conversation…

Bob: Hey, you want to talk to me about that book?
Alice: No

…sounds really rude. So by Bob saying his line, he’s putting a lot of subtle pressure on Alice to agree. Bob is a good person and he doesn’t want to do that. So instead he asks “Hey, what are you reading?”

Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
Alice: Not much. Just some random novel.
Bob: Oh, well, enjoy!

Apparently it’s important in conversation to provide plausible deniability for everyone, thus avoiding making people explicitly reject each other.

Bob has to operate as close to the border of “inscrutable confusingness” as possible without crossing it. He wants Alice to know he wants to talk to her, but he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to her …. As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to her, Alice can give a non-answer, pretending that she believes Bob will believe that she just didn’t realize he wanted to talk to her.

And not only that, but if conversational cues become too well understood, everyone has to step a little farther into confusingness in order to get back to this situation where everyone enjoys plausible deniability and no one knows for sure what anybody means, and it’s quite tiring even to think about it, really. No wonder people who operate a bit more literally have trouble.

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Books That Blend Science and Magic, Minus the Fantasy Tropes

Over at Barnes and Noble, an interesting post by Martha Wells: 8 Books That Blend Science and Magic, Minus the Fantasy Tropes

Martha Wells was already an award-nominated fantasy writer when she found herself unable to sell her latest book—because publishers didn’t know how to market it…

Yes, anything that strikes a publisher as hard to market is liable to fall through the cracks, no matter how much it might appeal to readers. Why, I too have had books rejected on the grounds that “This is beautifully written and we really like it but we don’t know how we would market it.”

Such a bummer.

Of course the Raksura series falls into this category:

[The Cloud Roads] offered an engaging world readers had never seen before—non-human protagonists, complex alien cultures, genre-mixing plotting—but the lack of tropes made it difficult to pigeonhole.

To me this series does read almost like SF rather than like fantasy, despite the prevalence of magic in the world. Because, yes, of the lack of typical fantasy tropes. I would have difficulty finding seven other books or series that offer anything like the same feel, and in fact I’m not sure any of these that Martha Wells has selected do have the same feel. But these are interesting selections and I see how the ones I’m more familiar with do blend science with magic.

Starting with Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series. The feel is completely different because of course it is; Shinn writes very different books than Wells. But it’s a good choice for this column, because the Elemental Blessings series takes place in a fantasy world that is currently undergoing a kinder, gentler industrial revolution. Also sort of flirting with the idea of more democratic forms of government, though they’re not there yet. It’s a unique fantasy setting, and a pleasant world in which to spend some time.

Here’s one that Wells doesn’t mention that seems to me to possibly fall sort of in the same category: The Order of the Air series by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham. There is so much about the early aircraft, and definitely a blending of magic and science.

Here’s one that doesn’t fit this category, but kind of does, but really doesn’t: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, one of my all time favorite fantasy series . . . um, science fiction series. It falls in the even tinier subgenre of “science fiction that totally looks like fantasy and uses fantasy tropes but it’s really science fiction all the way.” In fact, that particular subgenre is so tiny I’m not sure any other books fall into it.

Anyway, interesting post; if you have time, click through and see what other titles Martha Wells has included.

Also, you do know that the last of the Raksura novels just came out, right?

It is quite wonderful and gave me an excuse to re-read much of the earlier series in anticipation. High points: the relationship between Pearl and Malachite — did you expect them to kind of hit it off? Because wow, what a team. Also, the half-fell flight. Love them! If Wells goes on with this world from a different pov, I totally vote for the half-fell queen. Or the kethel. Or probably anybody associated with this wonderful group of new characters.

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So many books, so little time

So, this post at tor.com caught my eye: Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice: The Best Books of 2017—So Far

… mainly because I have read absolutely none of these. Gosh, so far behind and the year’s only half gone!

Not that I seriously try to read everything, or even everything highly recommended, or even everything highly recommended by people whose taste is similar to mine. Because honestly, who can keep up?

But if you glance through this post, I bet you will be able to pick out the single title that most stands out for me.

Want to try it?

I’ll wait here.

…..
…..
…..
…..
…..

Okay, did you click through? Here is the one I just have to try:

This one is described by Alexandra Pierce as an “alt-history story about America in the 19th century with added hippos. I mean, Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth is mostly about the hippos and the idea of riding and breeding hippos instead of horses. Also the lovely complicated relationships and the nefarious plots. But it’s mostly about the hippos.

Hah! No doubt that is ridiculous! And yet, what a wonderful idea! Nor is it quiiiite as impossible as it sounds: did you ever happen across this post at Wired: THE CRAZY, INGENIOUS PLAN TO BRING HIPPOPOTAMUS RANCHING TO AMERICA ?

Because apparently that was a thing. Did you know that was a thing?

IN THE EARLY years of the last century, the U.S. Congress considered a bold and ingenious plan that would simultaneously solve two pressing problems – a national meat shortage and a growing ecological crisis. The plan was this: hippopotamus ranching….Hippos imported from Africa and raised in the bayous of Louisiana, proponents argued, would provide a delicious new source of protein for a meat-hungry nation. In the process, the animals would gobble up the invasive water hyacinth that was killing fish and choking off waterways. It would be an epic win-win. A bill was introduced in Congress, and newspaper editorials extolled the culinary virtues of “lake cow bacon.”

… Jon Mooallem describes the hippo ranching scheme and the story of two fascinating men behind it: one a modest frontiersman and soldier of fortune, the other a self-aggrandizing con man. Both were spies. Each was sworn to kill the other. But the great cause of hippo ranching brought them together.

My goodness, you could not come up with a wilder or more delightful idea for fiction. Yet apparently this is more or less based on reality? It’s also the jumping off point for Gailey’s novel. Or, looking at Goodreads, maybe this is more a novella? It’s not about the actual historical people, apparently, which is almost too bad given the description above. But what a wonderful tidbit of alternate history to pick up!

River of Teeth is getting widely divergent reviews, but I’m definitely picking up a sample. Because, hippos!

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Can these people accurately guess your gender based on your knowledge of dog breeds?

Even stupider than usual, this internet quiz sucked me in by offering me dog pictures. Plus while I am 100% proof against the “… and you won’t believe what happened next!” style of click bait, I’m easy when it comes to internet quizzes. Though less so now, as just recently I’ve seen a whole series where questions are all multiple choice and all extremely easy; those are too obviously just wanting you to click through and see the adds.

Anyway, no one could possibly mistake these super-common breeds, except I suspect that people might not recognize a Siberian husky. I am guessing most people are getting the You Are Definitely Male screen, because honestly, who can’t recognize beagles and pugs and yorkies?

Here are a few comparisons that would genuinely test people’s dog breed knowledge:

Which one is the German Shepherd and which is the Belgian Malinois? Could you recognize a Malinois if you saw one trotting by in the park?

The size difference is disguised in this picture. The Malamute is about twice as big as the Siberian Husky. Can you tell which is which? Does it help to know the Malamute is a heavy draft dog whereas the Siberian is a racing animal? Incidentally, you will please the Malamute people if you never ask them why their dogs don’t have blue eyes. Malamutes never have blue eyes.

Can you tell the Pembroke Welsh Corgi from the Cardigan Welsh Corgi? The bone structure, head shape, and ear set are all different. And the Cardi comes in lots more colors, plus of course it is the one with the tail.

One is an English Springer Spaniel and the other is the much less common Welsh Springer.

What we have here is a Black Russian Terrier, a Giant Schnauzer, and a Bouvier.

Okay, now, what is this:

Did you say Yorkie? Bzzzzt. This is a Silky Terrier.

How about this one?

Tempted to call it a Basset Hound / Terrier mix? Nope, it’s a PBGV — a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen. I once really impressed someone by recognizing their ungroomed PBGV.

So, put some of these guys on your internet quiz and I’d be more impressed. Though the results probably still wouldn’t tell you anything about the gender of the respondents.

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An Octavia E Butler Exhibit —

Here’s something interesting: An exhibit featuring Octavia E Butler: “Octavia Butler: Telling My Stories,” at the Huntington Library, in the Pasadena suburb of San Marino, CA.

Curator Natalie Russell went through some “8,000 manuscripts, letters and photographs, and an additional 80 boxes of ephemera” to create an exhibition that shows, in chronological order, how Butler’s career was born and evolved, and what influenced her….Large glass cases hold early notebooks and drawings, report cards from her days at Pasadena City College and notes to herself about character development. Early copies of her first editions are here. So is the one-page letter from the MacArthur Foundation notifying Butler she’d been chosen as a fellow in 1995….The walls are hung with blowups of Butler’s childhood drawings and the affirmations she repeated to herself: “I am a best-selling writer, I write best-selling books,” one says. “Every day in every way I am researching and writing my award-winning books and short stories.”

That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges….

She sure did! If I lived near San Marino, I’d definitely make time to swing by this exhibit.

Quick, what’s your favorite of Butler’s work?

For me, though I loved, say, Wildseed, my favorite was the Lilith’s Brood series.

I wish (for many reasons) that Octavia E Butler were still alive. One of those reasons is that I would love to ask her if she intended to create an alien species that differs most dramatically from humanity in that they have very different deep-set instincts they are less able to overrule.

Now that I’ve been reminded of it, I really want to read that whole series again.

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The dangers of critique groups

Here’s a post from Jane Friedman: The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups

I don’t think they’re hidden at all, though I suppose that makes for a more interesting title. I think three of the four are super-obvious. Here they are:

1) No one tells the truth and no one really wants to hear it

How can anybody expect otherwise? Perhaps some (few) of you would not have trouble saying to someone: This is terrible in these ways. But I can’t imagine being comfortable saying that — and I mean, saying it in much gentler and kinder terms, not flat out like that. Which I also cannot imagine, though I hear it happens in some toxic writing groupls.

This is one reason I have never joined a critique group, though not the biggest reason (the biggest reason is I live a zillion miles from anywhere and also I am pretty antisocial by nature). I assume this is not a hidden danger, but a ubiquitous and probably unavoidable danger. If I could believe that everyone’s writing would be pretty good, joining a group would be a good deal more attractive.

Now, Friedman does suggest several ways to fix this issue, all of which seem like they would help, I guess, to some extent. She emphasizes kindness, for example, and suggests not allowing meanness. I do think the solution to group members offering mean-spirited attacks on other members’ writing is simple: throw out the mean ones. That’s the kind of confrontation with which I would have no trouble.

Okay, I suspect that’s the biggie when it comes to Problems In Writer’s Groups, but let’s see what else Friedman picks out:

2) Struggling writers are not the best judges of struggling writing.

Well, that instantly reminds me of Incompetent People Have No Clue, Study Finds, which of course refers to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Here Friedman does offer very workable solutions:

Make each note follow his format [What is wrong, what is missing, what is not clear, what doesn’t make sense] and don’t allow any other commentary. That means never saying, “Ohh, what if your character is from another planet instead?” or “I think you should start at Chapter 5,” or “You’re the best writer, I’m so jealous, I wish I could write like you.”

3) Struggling writers are not often the best judges of struggling writing, Part 2.

If the people in your group don’t have the knowledge and expertise to diagnose problems, don’t do it. Seriously. Don’t. Consider skipping the editorial analysis completely and make the group be about accountability, camaraderie, support, and information-sharing instead of about the words on the page.

That seems very sensible. There are a lot more specific suggestions if you click through.

4) Failure is not an option in a writer’s group, but failure is a part of the writing process.

This immediately strikes me as weird, since as far as I can tell failure is ALWAYS an option, and sometimes an extremely easy option, too.

But that’s not what Friedman is talking about. She says: Writing groups, however, tend to exclusively celebrate forward progress, and clean, linear thinking….This happens because writing groups focus on only on one tiny slice of work at a time. If that slice happens to be logical, chronological, clear and well written, you get a thumbs up. Problems related to how that slice fits into the whole sweep of the story, or how it supports the premise, or how it aligns with the overall structure are largely ignored—and yet many of the most common problems I see are the result of flaws in these areas.

This may be less utterly obvious, but it certainly seems like a plausible issue for writing groups to run into.

It’s true that for me the rough draft tends to get messy before it is possible to neaten it up. In fact, my WIP just got so messy that I am taking a break and working on something else while hopefully the back of my brain sorts out the problems. My inclination to show this WIP to anybody just at the moment is waaaaay negative; I would NEVER let anybody see such a ridiculously messy 75-page fragment, and if I did no one could possibly say anything helpful about it.

So, lots more practical suggestions if you click through. If you do want to join or start a writer’s group, or possibly breathe new life into a group that has started wandering away from a helpful form, you might well want to read through the whole post.

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Here’s something interesting: a giant vanishing volcano

Here’s a post at BBC Future (hat tip: File 770): The massive volcano that scientists can’t find

It was the biggest eruption for 700 years but scientists still can’t find the volcano responsible….What Alfonso’s wedding party (Alfonso II of Naples, October 1465). witnessed may have been more extraordinary than anyone imagined. Many thousands of miles away in the tropics, a giant volcano was making geological history. This was an eruption so big, it produced an ash cloud which enveloped the Earth and led to the coolest decade for centuries….The blast itself would have been heard up to 2,000km (1,242 miles) away and created a tsunami which caused devastation hundreds of kilometres away. In terms of scale, it surpassed even the 1815 eruption of Tambora, which unleashed energy equivalent to 2.2 million Little Boy atomic bombs and killed at least 70,000 people. Traces of the eruption have been found from Antarctica to Greenland.

The thing is, scientists can’t find the volcano that did it. What’s going on?

What a fun post! Also a little alarming, since of course we could see that kind of eruption again. Any time, probably.

This post is both well written and interesting and kind of horrifying in its vivid descriptions of the effects of giant volcanic eruptions. In Sweden, crops failed and grain stores emptied. Across Europe, trees stopped growing. In China, tens of thousands of people froze to death. Months after, it snowed non-stop for 40 days below the Yangtze River (the same latitude as Northern Mexico) and the Yellow Sea froze up to 20 km (13 miles) out from the shore. On the other side of the world, the Aztecs were faced with the greatest famine experienced in pre-history. I mean, wow.

If you want to pit your protagonist(s) against a terrible crisis, well, sounds like preventing or dealing with a giant volcanic eruption might fit the bill. Or you could add an eruption like this to one or two other factors of your choice and create a post-apocalyptic setting. But any way you slice it, this is the kind of event we would all prefer remain fictional for a good long while to come, like until we have special magic technology to deal with it.

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It’s a knack

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog: Do You Have the Title Gene?

[L]et’s talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverance, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I’m thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.

There are times I agree! Titles, urgh. Either you’ve got that knack or you don’t. Same with a knack for one-sentence summaries of a book. Double urgh for that.

PJ Parrish says: Our first book Dark of of the Moon began life as The Last Rose of Summer (Yuck…and too romancy) and mutated into Circle of Evil (not bad but a little heard-that-before) before I found the Langston Hughes poem “Silhouette” that inspired it. The line was: “Southern gentle lady, do not swoon. They’ve just hung a black man in the dark of the moon.”

Right on all counts. The Last Rose of Summer is definitely a romance title. Oddly, I only see ten or so books with that title at Amazon. I would have expected a hundred. But, however books may share this particular title, I would bet (without checking) that they’re all romances. As a thriller title, nooooo.

It’s a long and pretty decent post on the topic. But frankly my basic suggestion is: if you happen to have a serious knack for titles, hang out your shingle, charge five bucks a pop, and I bet you’d do pretty well.

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