Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Alien intelligences

The elephant as a person

…  the search space for nonhuman language use should rely on two general criteria. First, we need behavioural evidence for flexible, intelligent hypersociality that could make language development a viable investment for natural selection. Second, we need evidence of information exchange, using signals that have enough acoustic variation to make it physically possible that they could encode syntax. Dogs meet the first criterion but not the second; many songbirds meet the second criterion but not the first. There is a loose consensus among comparative psychologists that the zone of possibility for both criteria currently boils down to the following animals: parrots, corvids (crows, ravens, jays), toothed whales (dolphins, porpoises, sperm whales, orcas) – and elephants.

Elephants use multiple channels for signalling to and with one another. One channel, generating vibrations in the ground, is used for long-distance transmission. Soft, low-frequency vibrations in the air, emanating from both the trunk and the gut, seem to be the main medium at close quarters. (The familiar trumpeting might not involve enough acoustic variation to be useful for anything other than broadcasting urgent emotions such as fear and anger – but it’s clearly used to communicate warnings.) In addition, elephants have a range of standard trunk and head gestures that carry mutually understood signals. Finally, they clearly communicate information by touching one another in specific ways and places. They have receptors for processing information from this tactile probing – which, given their precision control and highly labile trunk lips, supports fine discriminations.

A database of elephant recordings is now starting to accumulate in the research community. It attempts to capture acoustic, visual and tactile signals, matched to behavioural observations. But the problem of interpreting these data is vastly more formidable than decoding encrypted human text or vocal messages. If elephant communication has syntax, and if this syntax relies on cross-channel modulation, we shouldn’t expect the rules of elephant grammar to map on to the syntactic categories of any human language. Elephants inhabit deeply different lifeworlds from humans, have different hierarchies of motivation, and make different perceptual discriminations. And, except in the crudest terms, we don’t know much about what elephants might want to say to one another.

Much, much more at the very long article linked at the top of this post.

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Somehow not too excited

This caught my eye:

Eye Drops Shown to Temporarily Reverse Far-Sightedness in Adults Could Replace Reading Glasses

How temporarily, you might wonder, as I did. Very temporarily, it turns out:

Kedar told Forbes that the drops, which are made out of chemicals that are already found in common eye medications, were shown to immediately reverse farsightedness for a number of hours.

Wow, a number of hours. The article also says:

“CSF-1 can potentially alleviate the burden of reading glasses and offer a meaningful solution for billions of people living with age-related farsightedness worldwide.”

Speaking as someone who just got reading glasses less than a year ago, and is not thrilled about it … I cannot imagine voluntarily putting eyedrops into my eyes multiple times a day, when I could just pick up reading glasses multiple times a day.

Obvious problems with the eyedrops:

–You can take off reading glasses at a moment’s notice. Once the eyedrops are in, you are stuck with their effects for hours.

–You have to, I guess, carry them with you, as the effect is so temporary.

–You have to put them in your eyes.

Now, I fully realize that some people put eyedrops into their eyes all the time. But I could hardly tolerate eyedrops that one day last winter when I was at the ophthalmologist’s, having my eyes checked.

It seems to me we already have a meaningful solution for billions of people — that is probably an overstatement, since I assume that not every single person over fifty needs reading glasses — but anyway we have a solution for people living with age-related farsightedness. This solution is called “reading glasses.”

Get back to me when you have eyedrops that offer a permanent fix for age-related farsightedness. Until then, no thanks.

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Coming to TV

Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Books Are Coming to TV

At least, maybe. According to the linked post, the books have been optioned. While that’s nice, it’s not definitive. Lots of books get optioned but never go anywhere — The Floating Islands was one of the horde of those books.

But still, though I came to Tamora Pierce’s work late, I’m fond of them. They might work quite well as a TV series.

There’s no word yet on which of the Tortall books will be making it into the series, and whether the different storylines will be combined into one massive plot, or if each season will follow a different character. Since all of the series (minus Provost’s Dog) build off one another, fill in their gaps, and share characters, we’re going to assume the former. If so, we hope they give the individual storylines the space and thought they deserve, as each of the different series are very much rooted in their main characters.

My favorite set was the Protector of the Small series.

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11 Scary Books

From Book Riot: 11 Scary Books So Terrifying, Readers Wish They Never Read Them

Pretty sure I will not be reading any of these, but since it’s Halloween, here you go: books that are too scary, at least for these readers. Let’s see what’s on the list:

Oh, here’s Pet Semetery. Actually, that is one Stephen King novel I never read, even though I’ve read most of his earlier novels. Even Cujo (which I didn’t like at all, but that’s a different rant). Basically, we all know that nothing good ever comes of bringing pets back from the dead, right? Right.

I haven’t read any of the others, though a few — Heart-Shaped Box — have been on my radar.

But the horror novel I’ve actually purchased for Halloween is this one:

Did you know T. Kingfisher had written a horror novel? Quite a step from Nine Goblins and so on.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

I do read horror now and then, especially if I’m fairly sure my favorite characters will come out all right at the end. This one, I’m trying because T. Kingfisher wrote it. I don’t think it will be so horrific I wish I hadn’t read it. We’ll see!

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Sale!

Via Book Bub, I see that the Sunwolf and Starhawk trilogy by Barbara Hambly is on sale right now — $2.99 for all three books.

First book:

An excellent fantasy. When the men of a town are enslaved, the ladies of the town decide they’ll do whatever it takes. Including making a mercenary an offer he can’t refuse, to train them to fight.

Second book:

Possibly even better than the first book. Mysterious murders, curses and demons, and especially well-drawn secondary characters.

Third book:

Not my favorite of the three, but a decent conclusion to the trilogy.

Well worth $2.99. If you don’t already have the trilogy, grab it quick while it’s available at this price.

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Socially awkward or autistic?

So, when I recently read Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light, I found a minor secondary character, Cora Fitzarthur, the most interesting character by a mile.

This books isn’t, probably, considered YA, but it could be. Certainly the protagonist, Audrey Camherst, has the typical virtues and faults of any generic female YA protagonist: good-hearted, brave, loyal, intelligent, insecure, impulsive, we could all probably write out a standard list. That’s all perfectly fine, but I don’t think she stood out particularly from the vast horde of young, kind, plucky, impulsive female protagonists.

Cora is a lot more interesting. Socially awkward, Cora handles ordinary social interactions very much as though she were an anthropologist taking notes on a foreign people. The four letters she wrote to an acquaintance, presented to the reader in the middle of the book, give her awkwardness true poignancy. Now, the milieu of this series is Regency-esque, so a young woman can certainly be raised apart from all society and wind up awkward for that reason, but Cora also shows (a) high intelligence, particularly (b) high degree of focus and (c) acute grasp of patterns. Is she autistic in some manner? I think she is.

This judgment is complicated by the insanely unhelpful decision to jam all kinds of obviously disparate syndromes and conditions under the “autism” umbrella and treat them as though they are related, when they plainly are not. Also by the concurrent tendency to force a grab-bag of things that aren’t any form of autism, such as lead poisoning, into the “autism” category because everything in creation is being jammed in that bag right now.

Nevertheless, I would say that Cora Fitzarthur shows the characteristics of one type of autism. This is handled subtly enough that it’s hard to be sure. But she is definitely interesting. She is the most intriguing and also the most sympathetic character in the story, and personally I would really like to see her brought front-and-center in a future novel of this series.

I have no intention of trying to compile a list of all the autistic and possibly autistic characters in SFF, because that’s a huge job and it’s not I’ve read widely enough to manage anything like a complete list. Probably someone else has already done this anyway. But I’d like to set Cora on a spectrum.

1) Socially awkward and/or extremely shy. I recall one review that pegged Kes, in Lord of the Changing Winds, as autistic.

I don’t think so. Kes is really shy and somewhat socially awkward, but I don’t believe she’s autistic. It’s okay with me if readers perceive her that way, but I don’t. Out of curiosity, did you? Let me know in the comments whether you did or didn’t perceive Kes as “on the spectrum.”

It actually strikes me as problematic and potentially quite harmful to define shyness, awkwardness, inexperience, and/or introversion as autistic traits or related to autism. Let us pause here to note that the child used to define the type for Ausburger’s syndrome turned out to be perfectly normal when he grew up and moved to a community to which he felt he belonged. He did not “have” anything. He was not “on the spectrum” of anything. Possibly this might provide a cautionary tale for anyone who is inclined to rush to define any shy, awkward, or introverted child as “on the spectrum.”

Moving on:

2) Appears to show genuinely autistic traits. Cora Fitzarthur is this kind of character.

Traits that go beyond shyness or social awkwardness: Being extraordinarily literal. Being extremely blunt in social contexts where that is not normal. Showing a real lack of understanding of social norms. High degree of focus and persistence. Extraordinary pattern recognition.

3) Definitely autistic, but “high-functioning.” Michael in Michelle Sagara’s Queen of the Dead trilogy is this kind of character.

 Lying to Michael was different. She could tell Allison – or Eric – that she had headaches all the time and they would pretend to believe her. Michael would call her on it and if she argued it would upset him because what he knew was true and what she was claiming as true weren’t the same. Michael is actually less socially awkward than Cora because his parents and friends help him cope. But he’s got the bluntness, the literalness, the lack of understanding of social norms – such as white lies and broken minor promises – all of that.

The difference between the Queen of the Dead series and a story with a Regency-esque setting like Turning Darkness into Light is that the former is contemporary and thus the term “autism” is available, along with its overgeneralized definition of characteristics. In the latter, no such term or concept is available, so no one around Cora is ever going to say “Oh yes, she’s autistic.” It’s up to the author to handle the character in a way consistent with a type of autism and to the reader to make the call. If you’ve read Turning Darkness into Light, do you agree or disagree with my assessment of Cora Fitzarthur?

I don’t want to move on from this category without mentioning Elizabeth Moon’s extraordinary Speed of Dark. If you haven’t read that, you should, full stop.

4) Definitely autistic, “low functioning.” There are very few characters of this kind in SFF. Probably more than one, but I can only think of one: Odelia in Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series.

You may recall that Mally was often swapped out for Princess Odelia, supposedly because of fear of assassination attempts; then it was discovered that Odelia was never seen in public; and finally it was revealed that Odelia could never be in the line of succession. She is absorbed in her internal world, she does not engage much with the external world or respond much to other people, she shows plenty of repetitious behaviors, she doesn’t speak – it’s altogether a classic presentation of profound autism, this time completely unmistakable even though there’s no such term or concept in the secondary world.

If you can think of a particularly well-drawn autistic character, or for that matter an ambiguous character like Cora, drop the title of the book in the comments, please.

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Shifting the reader’s view of secondary characters

So, Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan is a new standalone, or perhaps the first book of a series related to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. It definitely reads like the first book of a series, though it concludes the main plotline perfectly well.

If I’d realized there were two covers, I’d have gotten the white one. Oh well. Moving on to the actual story:

This is an epistolary novel, which is in keeping with the Lady Trent series. In this case, it’s mostly diary entries written by Audrey, granddaughter of Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent. Audrey has been given the task of translating an extensive set of Draconean tablets, which turn out to contain an important creation myth of the Draconean people. (To offset the unlikely nature of this amazing discovery, we are told that the vast majority of Draconean tablets found are just tax records, which does seem a lot more likely than stumbling across a central myth.)

The myth is interesting and engaging in its own right. Brennan plainly put a lot of thought into writing a creation myth in a style that seems (a) archaic; (b) plausible; (c) different from, if reminiscent of, any actual creation myth in the real world; and (d) consistent with what we already know about Draconeans from the previous series. Interspersing the myth with current action as bits of it get translated is a good way to handle it. If it were handed to the reader all at once it wouldn’t be as interesting or (it turns out) as suited to the overall plot.

Anyway, translating this myth in time for a specific political event constitutes the basic setup of the story. There’s a certain amount of chicanery going on, as plenty of people have strong motivations to interfere one way or another. But that’s not quite the aspect of the story I want to focus on here. Audrey is an engaging-enough protagonist, though actually I found Cora Fitzarthur the most interesting character in the story by a wide margin, but I don’t actually want to focus on either of them right now either.

No, what I’m most interested in is the development of a secondary antagonist, Aaron Mornett, and the reason I’m interested in him is because he presents such an interesting contrast with another antagonist, James Drake from Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker trilogy.

Now, if you’ve read the Spiritwalker trilogy, then you definitely remember Drake. He’s the one who seems like a good guy when we first meet him, and then every single time he reappears, he seems worse. And worse, and worse, until he arguably becomes the primary antagonist and definitely becomes the most despicable villain in the story. Elliot takes her time developing Drake, so for some time the reader may be unsure. This one thing he did was bad, but maybe not that bad? Maybe we can understand it. It’s offset by actions that are good. Or arguably good, if possibly a bit ambiguous. Then Drake does something else, and something else, and before long the reader is repulsed and then strongly repulsed. By the end, James Drake is one of the most awful bad guys I can think of. But when the reader first encounters him, that won’t be the impression at all. This is something Elliot develops slowly over the course of the whole story.

Aaron Mornett in Turning Darkness into Light seems poised to develop in precisely the opposite direction. Here in this book, we are given ample reason to distrust and dislike Mornett, but – and I think this is important – not because he is a really awful person. His great fault is intellectual fraud and plagiarism, and while I absolutely agree with Audrey Camherst that this is very bad, it’s not remotely on the same level of, say, torturing puppies.

James Drake is the kind of bad guy who isn’t going to be redeemable because the arc of justice in the story demands his destruction; nothing less can possibly satisfy the reader. That isn’t likely at all in Mornett’s case. Several times during the course of the story, Aaron Mornett does something kind or virtuous or both; it’s clear he really does have feelings for Audrey, though she is totally justified in not forgiving him for the things he’s done. It seems to me that Marie Brennan is deliberately setting Mornett up to be a returning character who shifts from an antagonist to an ally, and then most likely to a love interest.

That’s interesting and fun. It’s probably tough to do this kind of shift, where the reader’s perception of an important secondary character shifts completely over the course of the story, in less than a trilogy. The author has to do it gradually or it’s not as believable or at least not as effective. Plus Aaron really did engage in dreadful intellectual fraud and that is not something that can be brushed lightly aside. Not just a shift in the reader’s perception is going to be required (if Brennan does go in that direction) — it will take a change in the character himself.

Not quite the same, but related: some authors have a knack for handling an abrupt shift of perception from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally. In this case, the abruptness can be part of the reason it’s effective, as the protagonist’s, and thus the reader’s, opinion is jerked sharply sideways. Barbara Hambly is especially good at that, or at least especially likely to do that. If you’ve been keeping up with the Benjamin January series, you may recall Chloe, Henri’s wife. Henri is the “protector” of Benjamin’s sister’s Minou, as you may know, and when this marriage first looms on the horizon, it is presented as a serious threat to Minou because Chloe is cold as ice and possibly truly vicious. Then we actually meet her and wham! our perception is radically altered within a sentence or two.

This is so characteristic of Hambly’s storytelling that when I was reading Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, when the same kind of sharp perceptual shift happened with Lieutenant Coldstone, I immediately said, “I bet this is really Barbara Hambly,” and looked for confirmation online. Sure enough, “Barbara Hamilton” is Barbara Hambly. No doubt the sentence-level writing contains all kinds of tells, and I might have picked up on those subconsciously, but it was this abrupt shift from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally that made me sit up and say, “This is Hambly’s writing.”

None of this is the same as the sometimes rather artificial dislike-to-love arc that’s so very common in romance. That kind of arc can work, of course, though it’s so cliched it’s hard to make it seem sufficiently real and natural to satisfy an experienced reader. I can think of several examples that worked for me, or at least didn’t really irritate me. But the relationship between Audrey Camherst and Aaron Mornett is very different. Here, Audrey’s opinion is not remotely based on a misunderstanding, and sorting out that relationship would take, not a change in perception nor a decision by Audrey to tolerate a slight flaw in Aaron’s character, but a real change in Aaron’s ideas about right and wrong.

I hope I’m right that this book is the first in a series, because I’d enjoy watching that happen.

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What is a story?

From Janet Reid’s blog: What is “not a story”

Perhaps it’s too obvious to write about it and I just need to do more homework, but I think it would be helpful if you explained what makes one entry a story and another not, even though they’re both compelling. … in such short entries, there usually isn’t an ending necessarily, and yet this one counts as a story and that one doesn’t. Why? 

This question refers to the many flash fiction contests Janet offers, with a prompt and a very strict word limit. Lots of her regular commenters participate. I’m terrible at flash fiction, so I don’t. Many of the entries are evocative, effective, funny, or successful in some other way.

Here’s Janet’s response to this question:

This is actually a very good question. 
Let’s use last week’s contest for the examples. 

There were three entries that got “not quite a story”. 

For this particular contest, the requirements were: not over 100 words, and you must include the words space, between, fair, bank, and holt. No, I have no idea how Janet picks words to include. I know of exactly one example of “holt” in fiction: in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. I believe in Silver on the Tree. The word “holt” is used in one of the riddles or clues that Will and Bran use during their adventures. “I am the womb of every holt.” — remember that? Let me see, the whole riddle went like this:

I am the womb of every holt, I am the blaze on every hill, I am the queen of every hive, I am the shield for every head, I am the tomb of every hope.

I loved poetry and riddles in fantasy novels as a kid. In fact, I still do. All these poems and riddles from The Dark is Rising stuck in my head, or I’d have forgotten this word, probably.

Anyway, I’ll provide just one not-a-story example. Click through to check out the whole post and here are the results for the “holt” contest.

Not a story:

Colin Smith 

She was an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath. At least that’s how she introduced herself at the speed dating table. The space between us felt uncomfortably small. 

She picked up a pencil and asked what I did. 

“I’m a banker,” I said shuffling my chair, making the space bigger. “What about you?” 

“I hunt,” she said, fixing me with thirsty eyes, testing the pencil point on her thumb. “In the holts.” 

“Fair enou—” The pencil flashed by my face. I turned. An impaled roach fell to the floor. 

“Call me,” she said, sliding her card. 

I did. 

Twenty years ago today.

Hah! I like that a lot.

Janet says: This isn’t a story because the fact that she’s an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath (one of the great uses of prompt words) has no further reveal. There’s no twist of expectations or events. There is no gold standard on what makes a story good, but what makes something a story is a change, or a twist or a reveal.

Interesting!

What makes a story is a change or a reveal. That’s interesting right there. How about it? If you pick up a slice-of-life literary novel in which nothing much happens, nothing changes, the protagonist just drifts through the world, is that not a story? There was something of a fad for that kind of ennui story for a while, wasn’t there? Hermann Hesse’ Steppenwolf and so on? That was a book I absolutely hated, I can’t imagine why I read the whole thing, but at least the experience now allows me to say that perhaps some novels aren’t really stories, according to this criterion.

Okay, sure, I’ll agree with this definition, at least tentatively. If nothing changes, it’s not a story. In fact, if the protagonist doesn’t change, it’s probably not a story, even if the world changes around the protagonist.

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The map of literature

Via tor.com, this:

Isn’t that neat?

Martin Vargic describes his work as one that shows “how the multitudes of diverse literary genres sprouted, branched, and eventually evolved to their modern state.” The map contains over 7000 points — authors, writers, poets, and more.

Every literary movement and a genre is its own continental realm. Every single dot on the map on the map represents a single author, and every tiny rhombus a single literary work. It takes just a few seconds to spot dozens of the best selling and most talented authors and their works.

The above is, obviously, just a detail of the map. Click through and scroll down to see the full map, which is circular, in a square frame containing a great deal of commentary.

Interesting details: Ancient literature appear to be central, at the pole of the round map. As we get more modern, we move toward the periphery — Manga is right by the edge. Romance is a separate continent from Romanticism. Horror is farther removed from Fantasy than I think it should be. Lots and lots of islands whose names I can’t quite read.

Definitely click through and take a look!

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Hawks that use fire, wow

Did you all know about this?

Australian ‘firehawks’ use fire to catch prey

“Certain birds are fire followers in that they will take advantage of fires,” Bonta said. They perceive smoke and snatch the flushed-out animals. But a few raptors actively disperse flames on the landscape to obtain food. …

Their observations indicated black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco berigora) congregate around savanna fires, descend to seize burning sticks and transport them in their beaks or talons, either individually or in small cooperative groups. After dropping the sticks in other areas and setting the ground ablaze, these fire specialists swoop closer and grab grasshoppers and other invertebrates in midair as the prey flee the smoldering vegetation.

How about that? Other tool use by birds: Egyptian vultures use rocks to hammer ostrich eggs till they break. Gulls drop bread into water to bait fish into rising to the surface. Crows not only use sticks to get to insects, they carve the end of a stick into a hook first. Parrots can use pebbles to grind shells into grit so they can eat the shells — they need the calcium.

But use of fire! That’s a new one on me.

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