Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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“MY IMMORTAL” AS ALCHEMICAL ALLEGORY

Here’s a post from Slate Star Codex which is really weird and funny and I didn’t see it coming at ALL. It’s a bit off the path for Scott Alexander (or at least it seems that way to me). I expect posts about psychology from Scott — or posts that are sort of psychology-adjacent — and there here we get this (very) extended tongue-in-cheek parody of alchemical allegory.

I’d never heard of “My Immortal” before. Apparently I kinda missed out on a cultural moment. Here’s what Scott says:

From Vox: Solving The Mystery Of The Internet’s Most Beloved And Notorious Fanfic. The fanfic is “My Immortal”, a Harry Potter story so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page, and articles about it in SlateBuzzfeed, and The Guardian.

It’s famous for being really, really bad. Spectacularly bad. Worse than it should be possible for anything to be. You wouldn’t think you could get The Guardian to write an article about how bad your fanfiction was, but here we are. Everyone agrees that it must have taken a genius to make something so awful, but until recently nobody knew who had authored the pseudonymous work.

…But this leaves other mysteries unresolved. Like: what is going on with it? Its plot makes little sense – characters appear, disappear, change names, and merge into one another with no particular pattern. Even its language is fluid, somewhere between misspelled English and a gibberish that can at best produce associations suggestive of English words.

All these features are unusual in a modern fanfiction. But they’re typical of alchemical texts, which are usually written in a layer of dense allegory. Might this shed more light on “My Immortal?” After spending way too long investigating this, I find strong evidence in favor. “My Immortal” is a description of the Great Work of alchemy. Its otherwise-inscrutable symbolism is a combination of three traditions: the medieval opus, the 17th century Rosicrucians, and the native German traditions encoded in Goethe’s Faust. We’ll start by going over these traditions, then delve into the text to unveil the hidden meaning.

So … If this sounds entertaining, by all means click through. You will never, ever see another long post comparing a really bad Harry Potter fanfic to alchemical allegories, I’m pretty sure, so this is probably your one and only chance to enjoy that comparison.

I tried to excerpt a tidbit of Scott’s analysis to share with you all here, but gave up. There are so many priceless bits that I kept putting one in and then replacing it and you know what, it’s hopeless to select anything. Just, seriously, click through and read the whole thing.

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In the world of TUYO: Are Ugaro and Lau the same species?

If you’ve read even a little of TUYO at this point, then you’ve met at least one Ugaro and a lot of Lau. You have undoubtedly noted that these two peoples are very different.

I made the difference much more extreme than you would see between any real-world populations, just as extreme as possible. I mean, the Ugaro are comfortable in short sleeves in the middle of a Canadian-style winter, as long as they can stay active. Their muscles don’t lock up in frigid water. It’s not as clear how extremely heat-adapted the Lau are, but eventually maybe we’ll see that; they are just as extreme.

Then I whammed the two peoples together in highly distinctive environments separated by about, what, a hundred yards or so rather than a couple thousand miles. Did anybody else wonder if the Ugaro and Lau are actually the same species, or is that just my own biology background showing?

How about theLakasha-erra of the far south? Does mentioning them make anybody wonder about this? I mentioned, but did not describe, the Tarashana of the far north, the starlit lands. I may come back to them later in another book; I left a definite plot hook for that, which some of you may have noticed. I think I know what they look like, which will also be highly distinctive.

Did anybody notice I suggested that a little bit of interbreeding may take place between Ugaro and Lau? Not a lot, and given the events in the story, you can probably see that any resulting children would probably wind up settling in the borderlands between the winter country and the summer country.

I’m actually not sure whether the two peoples are the same species or not. In story terms, it doesn’t matter — neither the Ugaro nor the Lau would think of it in the way a modern biologist would — but since I have a biology background, I do sort of wonder just how different two populations can get and still be considered the same species.

The “biological species definition” says that if two populations can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, they are the same species. This is not, of course, correct.

I would like to pause for a moment to emphasize the above statement. The biological species concept is a handy guideline, but it is not correct. It’s widely known, widely referenced, and frequently wrong. For example, grizzly bears and polar bears can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but any fool can easily see that they are different species. There’s a loooong list of related species like this, so at this point I would really like to drive a stake through the heart of the biological species concept. It gets cited all over the place as though it’s Gospel Truth, which it isn’t, and it’s causing way more confusion than it’s worth.

There are (at least) three other species definitions in use today, if you’re curious: the evolutionary species concept, the phylogenetic species concept, and the morphological species concept. Personally I pretty much go with the morphological species concept: if it looks like the same species, it is; and if it doesn’t, it isn’t. “Looks like” includes behavioral and metabolic and for that matter DNA similarities and differences. In the real world, I want to emphasize, you’re always going to be able to argue around the edges because real organisms don’t necessarily feel inclined to follow textbook definitions.

One current school of thought declares that dogs and wolves are the same species. This is done because of a (wrong, imo) interpretation of DNA evidence. Let me just rapidly list important differences between dogs and wolves in order to illustrate the kinds of differences that I think are important but that some people are willing to ignore:

— Wolves, but not dogs, are pack animals and form relatively stable family packs in the wild with consistent positive (affiliative) and negative (agonistic) behaviors that support family pack formation. Dogs really do not do this, except for dingos. Dogs, including dogs living in the wild, don’t form the same kind of pair-bond between mated pairs, don’t show the same behaviors that maintain a pack, don’t generally show cooperative care of puppies, and just on and on. Dogs are highly social, but they are not actually pack animals.

–Dogs, but not wolves, can digest carbohydrates rather well. This doesn’t mean that a vegan diet is okay for a dog, but it means that a dog will starve to death much more slowly on such a diet than a wolf would, often living long enough to develop deficiency diseases rather than dying before those diseases turn up. You are safe to assume that I am absolutely disgusted by people who delude themselves into thinking it’s okay to feed their dog a vegan diet, but it is true the dog does not outwardly starve on this kind of diet as fast as a cat would. Or a wolf.

— Dogs have smaller teeth and weaker jaws than wolves of the same basic size. This is true of dogs that supposedly look like wolves, such as Siberian huskies and German shepherds, not just of, I don’t know, Pomeranians or whatever. Dogs have smaller brains relative to their body weight than wolves. Dogs have shorter legs proportionally, and smaller feet, and the head is rather different, and the eyes are seldom yellow, and on and on.

Based on all that, as far as I’m concerned, dogs and wolves are definitely not the same species. As an added perk, this lets me say much more firmly that wolves are terrible, terrible pets and that wolf-dog hybrids are also terrible, terrible pets. People who think dogs and wolves are the same species have a hard time saying this firmly enough and then people get wolves or high-percentage wolf hybrids, nearly all of which get put down young because the owner can’t cope, and I am now standing on a soapbox, so let me step down and bring this topic back to the two peoples we get a good look at in TUYO.

The Ugaro and the Lau — different enough to be two distinct species? Or not? I don’t actually know, but it was a question that drifted through my mind from time to time as I wrote the story. I think this is why I exaggerated the differences even more than necessary — for example, the Lau often live half again as long as the Ugaro, with a typical lifespan of well over a hundred years — did you notice that? But then I got rid of old age for the Ugaro just because it’s a nice thing to do — they may die younger, but they barely show their age till right at the end. (I wish I were aging like that, but alas.) So those are important differences.

Plus of course sorcery is a lot more common among the Lau. I could tell you why, but I think I’ll hold onto that worldbuilding detail in case I want to use it as a plot point sometime.

For me, the question of whether the Ugaro and Lau are the same species or not adds depth to the world and I enjoy thinking about it, even though they’re not nearly as different as, say, Tolkien’s humans and elves.

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Tuyo cover

Here’s the final version of the cover for TUYO. I will say, I ordered a handful of author copies before this cover was finished. Well, it’s a fine cover, but this new one does give a clear indication that the metaphysics of the world may not be quite the same as ordinary physics.

So there it is. It was hard to choose between a scene pulled way back, with homes and fields and countryside on the right and a sweeping forest on the left, and this closer view. This one at least suggests the world.

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Improving quality of life

I saw this post recently and thought it was worth pulling out:

My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

Progress is usually debated in terms of the big things like lifting the Third World out of poverty, or science & tech: discovering gravitational waves, creating world champion AIs, turning AIDS into a treatable rather than terminal disease, conquering hepatitis C or, curing deadly cancers with genetically-engineered T-cells. But as cool as those big things are, and matters of life-and-death for many, such achievements tend to be remote from ordinary people, and not your everyday sort of thing (or so one hopes). Small stuff matters too.What about the little things in an ordinary life?

There’s a lot about computers and technology, of course, because how could there not be. But also this:

Environment: air quality in most places has continued to improve, forest area has increased, and more rivers are safe to fish in

Board Games have been revolutionized by the influx of German/​European-style games, liberating us from the monopoly of the Amerigame Monopoly

I hear a lot about this being the golden age of board games due to Kickstarter. I’m sure it’s true.

Even Mass-Market Grocery Stores like Walmart increasingly routinely stock an enormous variety of foods, from sushi to goat cheese to kefir.

They do, by the way! I recently noticed the only brand of coconut milk I actually like is now being carried at the local Walmart. That was a surprise!

and finally and least importantly:

Better Brussels Sprouts: Brussels sprouts no longer taste quite so bad due to artificial selection

I wouldn’t know, having purchased Brussels sprouts several times because they were so beautiful in the store, only to discover that no matter what you do with them, they are awful. Not tasting quite so bad is doubtless a good thing, though!

Anyway, by all means click through and scan the whole list if you’re interested.

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The burned house horizon

Here is something weird I encountered recently:

In the archaeology of Neolithic Europe, the burned house horizon is the geographical extent of the phenomenon of presumably intentionally burned settlements.

This was a widespread and long-lasting tradition in what is now Southeastern and Eastern Europe, lasting from as early as 6500 BCE (the beginning of the Neolithic) to as late as 2000 BCE (the end of the Chalcolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age). 

Although there is still debate about why the house burning was practiced, the evidence seems to indicate that it was highly unlikely to have been accidental. There is also debate about why this would have been done deliberately and regularly, since these burnings could destroy the entire settlement.

This is strange! I can immediately think of some reasons that deliberately burning your village and building a different one from scratch might be useful, though. Well, one reason. A custom of this sort, however justified by the community, could have the result of reducing contamination by pathogens. Maybe that was what kept the custom going? Because maybe communities that practiced this sort of deliberate destruction of their villages reduced the level of disease in their community?

A custom that immediately springs to mind, described or at least referenced by Tony Hillerman in his mysteries, is the Navajo custom of burning or destroying a house where someone has died. Plus tools used to bury someone are destroyed afterward, according to this site. I wonder if beliefs at all similar — the unclean nature of a dead body, the danger from evil spirits, the importance of getting rid of anything to do with death — led to this destruction of whole villages.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting.

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Adding emotional heft

So, one thing that doesn’t work in a prologue, generally speaking, is a big battle scene where a lot of people die. This is because the reader has not been given a reason to care about these people, so no matter how many of them die, there’s no real emotional impact. Blow up a whole world and well, that’s a shame, but is there a reason to actually turn the page? Not really, because so what? Those people have not been made real to the reader. They don’t have the backstory, the personality, the depth, that makes a character real, so it’s impossible to care about them.

On the other end of the spectrum is annoyingly transparent tearjerker manipulation. Stephen King’s later books are bad that way. Oh, there she is! The nice female character who’s going to die a tragic death. With some of King’s books, you can literally spot that character the second she walks on stage. No matter what contortions King has to go through to make sure the protagonist fails to save her, she’s doomed. I gave up reading King some years ago because he did that in a bunch of books in a row and as I say, the technique became super transparent and obvious.

In between ho-hum mortality and manipulative tearjerking, though, is a wide range of character death that has to happen to move the plot along, and which ought not be skipped across lightly.

When I wrote the first draft of TUYO, there was a scene right about in the middle where a lot of people died, and that scene lacked emotional heft because none of those characters had been made real for the reader. That scene is still there, so if you’re about halfway through TUYO, I expect you know which scene I’m talking about. But when I realized how little emotional impact that scene had, I specifically set out to nudge the reader into caring a lot more about the real tragedy that takes place in those few pages. The decision was so explicit that I am able, for a change, to draw back the curtain and explain what I did that I think makes this scene work much better in the final version.

What I did was take one minor secondary character who dies in that scene and make him real. I gave him just tiny hints of personality in the first half of the novel, just the minimum necessary to justify a moment when he tells Ryo a little bit about his personal history. This is very short, about a page. Then he gets a few final words. Then he dies, plus a lot of other people, but this one character carries that scene. Rather than letting the reader skim across this scene and hardly notice that a lot of people just got killed, the reader cares about this character and that spills out across the scene and makes all those deaths tragic.

Or that’s how it’s supposed to work. I think it came out rather well.

As a side note, I’ll add that usually, not always, I write a book straight through from front to back. There are variations on this theme, but generally that’s how I do it.

In TUYO, though, I wrote the first half. Then, at the point our protagonists meet the bad guy, I was like ooooh no, this is going to be really awful. And I skipped ahead to the big escape scene, I expect you know the one I mean, and wrote almost all the rest of the book from there. Only after the ultimate victory did I go back and wrote those scenes in the middle. I’ve never done that before, but thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything quite that awful to a character before either, so maybe that’s why.

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Detecting plagiarism

And, with regards to a recent post about plagiarism, here is another post from The Passive Guy: Following are excerpts from a website called Similar Works. As the website states, the purpose of this site is to help protect authors from plagiarism of their books.

Upload your book to Similar Works and we’ll scan the text against other titles and keep monitoring — and alert you when we find any matches.

The Band [A colored bar that showed similar text] can tell you a lot about how books are related to each other! For example, if a book has a lot of stripes on the far right side of the Band, then there are similarities detected near the end of the text. That probably indicates that the same back matter or samples appear in another book. Stripes on the left indicate similarities detected near the start of the text, and they are probably disclaimers or generic copyright notices.

If I were writing romance in particular, I’d have to consider this, I guess. As it is, perhaps not.

I wouldn’t mind someone writing an app that scans for and installs malware in stolen ebooks — the kind of malware that turns the whole stolen book into repeated iterations of “You stole this book” would be ideal.

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We live in a science fiction universe

Also, regardless of the positive spin the author tries to put on this article, I have to say this sounds like One Small Step Toward Your Dystopian Future to me: Scientists use ultrasonic mind control on monkeys

“Brief, low-intensity ultrasound pulses delivered non-invasively into specific brain regions of macaque monkeys influenced their decisions regarding which target to choose,” researchers wrote . “The effects were substantial, leading to around a 2:1 bias in choices compared to the default balanced proportion.” ….

Though a lot more testing of the technology and its potential is necessary, scientists estimate ultrasonic brain manipulation could eventually be used to study and treat decision-making disorders like addiction in humans.

I have several responses.

a) influencing which direction monkeys look does not necessarily seem to be dependent on influencing decision making. I wonder if the researchers are confusing reflexes with decisions. Or if they are defining decision in a really broad way. Would they say that pulling your hand back from something hot is a decision? Because I would not.

b) I can’t see any plausible link between glancing at movement and choosing to take a drink.

c) I’m not sure I believe that addiction is, at bottom, a problem that has to do with decision making.

Just how did the researchers get to any kind of theory about the usefulness of this research with regard to addictive behavior? I bet they spun some confection of theory in the intro and/or conclusion of their paper, because one does that in scientific papers, but when you pull the reflex-to-look-at-motion –> ability-to-influence-addictive-behavior connection out like this, it looks pretty tenuous.

Definitely a science-fiction-y kind of headline though.

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Modern plagiarism

Here’s an interesting post on modern plagiarism techniques, from The Passive Guy, who is a lawyer, as you may know, and whom I think specializes in intellectual property law.

PG has been looking into contemporary plagiarism over the past several days and will be writing more than one post about the topic.

While many of the ways of beating academically-oriented plagiarism detection are focused on manipulating a student paper, other, more sophisticated computerized tools often referred to as “Spinners” or “Article Spinners” can be used to not only fool college plagiarism checkers, but also make it difficult for the author of a book to discover plagiarism and prove copyright infringement in court.

Google has become smarter, so spinning doesn’t work there any more, but spinning software is still around and has reportedly become more sophisticated. Pour the text of a romance ebook into spinning software and out comes another romance that has a similar plot but different character names, places, descriptions, etc.

And here is a post where PG goes on to apply this to a current plagiarism case that’s currently in court.

I must say, that sure looks like plagiarism to me. Also, it’s totally consistent with the type of plagiarism that’s apparently such a problem in the world of cheap romance ebooks, the type that targeted Courtney Milan and Nora Roberts, among others. I wonder how those cases are progressing? I doubt there’s been time for everything to work its way through the court system yet.

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TUYO

Just letting you all know that TUYO is now available on Amazon!

The cover artist and I made a huge final push to get this officially published in time for me to enter it in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2020. We made it by 24 hours, and I’m very pleased to see that my entry went through, so I will be following the SPFBO with intense interest this year.

Because Aidana had to do this cover super, super fast, its possible this may not be the actual final cover. It’s not bad, though. The tiger is not like Your Special Telepathic Friend or anything, a trope I’m not fond of in fantasy. It’s just a tiger. The huge white tigers of the winter country are mentioned now and then and one is seen in the distance once. I told Aidana, “Not exactly like one of our modern tigers,” and sent her a picture of a sabertoothed cat from the Pleistocene and here we are.

If you’ve already read this, I would appreciate it if you went to the Amazon page or the Goodreads page and left a review. If you haven’t, well, I hope you will soon find time and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did . . . literally, that much! You may remember that this is the one where I wrote the entire first draft in an obsessive 40 days.

This one is enrolled in Amazon Select right now, which means it’s available only through Amazon. Eventually I may put it out on platforms other than Amazon. In the meantime, if you would like to buy a paper copy directly from me, I would be happy to send you one.

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