Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Chronicles of Elantra

Sorry about the lack of posting; busy weekend, lots going on, some of which I expect I will tell you all about fairly soon.

Meanwhile! Here’s a post by Liz Bourke at tor.com: Revisiting Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra

This caught my eye because

a) some of you have recommended this series;

b) I like some of Michelle Sagara West’s other work;

c) I fear I could not quite get into the first book of the Elantra series, but I’m willing to try again or even jump ahead and try a book later in the series.

so I’m interested in what Liz has to say about this series. I suppose she must have read the whole thing because why else would she be doing a post like this?

She begins this way:

Those fifteen books … are a satisfying combination of contemporary-feeling secondary world city-based fantasy, and go-big-or-go-home epic. Every single volume has a relatively self-contained arc (at least one major problem, and major frequently means fate-of-the-world, is solved in every one) but the series as a whole has continuing arcs of growth and change for its cast of characters, and especially for its protagonist, Kaylin Neya.

See, that’s the kind of thing that makes me feel like I really ought to give this series another try.

As the series has advanced, Kaylin has acquired a wider circle of friends and allies, and in part, these are what give the books fresh interest and appeal with every new volume. More people bring with them more problems and concerns and their own ways of seeing the world—and Elantra, for all that it’s a single city, is a wide weird world indeed. … The Chronicles of Elantra are enjoyable, entertaining, engaging fantasy novels that always leave me feeling satisfied—and rather reassured, despite occasional horrible things happening, because somehow, it all comes mostly right in the end.

I know some of you like this series — what do you all think of jumping ahead? If you have a favorite book in the series, what is is?

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Oh, *there’s* the rest of the plot!

If you’ve been following along closely enough, you have realized that there’s an excerpt from the third book in the Tuyo series at the end of NIKOLES. This third book, TARASHANA, is not finished, obviously. There hasn’t been anything like enough time to finish a whole third book since May even if I were doing nothing else AND being obsessive. (Well, actually, if both those criteria had been met, I guess there has been, but no.) It’s going to be a long book, I can say that; probably at least as long as TUYO.

Anyway, I expect the third book WILL be finished next year. I was sure enough to put that excerpt at the back of NIKOLES, even though I did not know the second half of the plot. Generally the second half occurs to me somewhere during the writing process and there’s no problem.

(I used to say always, but no. I have been completely stuck 85,000 words into an SF novel for a good long time now because the last part of the plot has not only not occurred to me, but has also resisted all attempts to bash it into shape by brute force. (Yes, this is very frustrating.))

So my actual point here is, even though I have not actually been working on that particular book lately, I woke up super early this morning and, while waiting for my alarm clock to tell me it was time to get up — five, and in a well-run world, that would be dawn all year round — anyway, while lying there, I suddenly figured out:

— who the bad guy is and what their motivation is. That was a tough one! But now it seems obvious! Hopefully my idea about this will work perfectly and I won’t have to change my mind about it, but I think it will be fine.

— exactly why the Tarashana character is behaving in the way that she is and precisely what she wants to achieve, and the specific form of magic she is trying to use, and a metaphysical justification for her to believe this will work.

— that the Tarashana character is definitely female, and why. (Why may not be visible to the reader, but there’s now a worldbuilding reason for this to be the case, as well as just deciding to make her female). Anyway, I had been going back and forth on that decision, but she is now definitely a female character.

— how to work out the timing in a way that will probably let me do the denouement I have in mind without too much trouble.

That’s basically everything. I already knew:

— how to get Our Heroes into position to meet the Tarashana character.

— an important aspect of the Ugaro society that I wanted to show you.

— the important character arcs for Ryo and Aras and also some subsidiary character arcs.

— the denouement, except there are really at least two denouement scenes. That should be fine. There are two denouement scenes in TUYO and so far no one has complained about that.

When I get back to it, I hope that TARASHANA will now be in shape to go pretty quickly.

Now, if the back of my brain would only present me with the last part of the plot of that SF novel, that would be really useful!

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Recent Reading: Almost Human by Berger and Hawks

So, I have been kind of wondering, every now and then, about the current state of our understanding of hominid evolution, because that is the sort of thing I sometimes wonder about.

You may have heard of the discovery and description of Homo naledi in South Africa a few years ago. I did, and read this excellent National Geographic article with fascination (I think you have to now register (free) to read this article). (There’s also a video, but I don’t know if you have to register to view it.) The head paleontologist for all this was Lee Berger, and he did lots of cool things, including allowing free access to the real fossils and casts of them, and encouraging dozens of publications by heaps of paleontologists. So now there’s this book of his, Almost Human, published in 2017, which I happened across just a few weeks ago.

I picked up a copy at once and read it immediately and I have to say, if you’re the least bit interested in hominid evolution, and you like narrative nonfiction, you should absolutely read this book. It’s not technical at all. It’s very much a story about these discoveries.

I really want to look up some of the more technical papers cited in the bibliography, plus I need to do a literature survey and see what Berger’s been up to in the last couple years, but this was a great reorientation to the field plus it’s just a fun read. Let me quote a little bit that includes a wonderful analogy:

For their work, the preparators use an “air scribe,” a metal device about the size of a large fountain pen, attached to a compressed air hose. The business end of the scribe is a tungsten-tipped metal implement with a sharp, pencil-like point. As compressed air is injected into the scribe, the whole tip vibrates rapidly up and down, a few microns at each pulse. It is as if an ant had invented a jackhammer …

I laughed when I got to that phrase. That may be the best single line in the book. I mean, it’s hard to top! I also bookmarked the section about the safety procedures used when excavating the Homo naledi fossils from the very difficult cave where they were found and made my mother read that section. (She went on to read the whole book, which should tell you something, because this is not her normal kind of nonfiction reading.) I don’t dislike caves, quite the contrary, I’ve been caving and I enjoy reasonably safe caves and I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but this one, well, let’s just say it would hardly be possible to go overboard about safety in this particular cave. Not sure I would be willing to go all the way into the part where the bones were found.

Anyway, Berger was first responsible for finding some great fossils of a new species, now called Australopithecus sediba, in 2008. This is a mosaic species, with lots of primitive features and lots of derived features, so it was basically a matter of lining up lots of important anatomical features and asking, Okay, Australopithecus or Homo? Small brain, primitive. Small teeth, derived. Relative proportions of molars, primitive. Anatomy of the foot, primitive. Anatomy of the pelvis, more derived. And so on and so forth. As you see, eventually Berger decided to assign this new species to Australopithecus, for lots of reasons but partly on the basis of primitive characteristics of the legs and feet.

Could this species be in the direct line of descent to modern humans? Sure, could be! Or maybe not! That’s the thing, there are SO MANY DIFFERENT hominid species, and they have such different combinations of traits. This one has the sort of mosaic of traits that would be expected for SOME transition between Australopithecus and Homo, but there is absolutely no reason to expect there weren’t lots of other hominid species with completely different mosaics of traits.

In 2013, Berger found another such species. This was Homo naledi. Berger was responsible for finding tons and tons of fossil material in the Rising Star cave system, in the same basic area as the A. sediba – a very thoroughly explored area, and yet here’s another completely new hominid species. Getting to those bones required getting through a nine-inch gap (!) and creeping through this extremely narrow forty-foot-long chute. Lots of people just could not fit, including Berger himself, so he wound up recruiting a team of six young female paleontologists plus support staff. Here is an interview with one of the women recruited for this excavation. They took out about 700 bones in three weeks and – I did not know this – there are thousands and thousands of bones probably still in that cave, if someone had the funding and inclination to go get them. Then they located another spot in the same cave system and recovered hundreds more bones from that location, same species. They got complete hands, complete feet, they got almost every possible bone of the body, all ages, it was just an incredible find. Berger then organized a workshop, pulled in thirty young paleontologists from all over, and studied the heck out of these Rising Star fossils.

Unlike A. sediba, H. naledi has a very, very human-like foot and leg, except the neck and head of the femur is very Australopithecus-like and so is the pelvis. The wrist is very human-like too, but the thumb has a unique metacarpal and there is a distinct curvature of the finger bones. The shoulder is much more primitive. The general summation I first read about this species is that the more medial parts of the skeleton are more primitive and the distal parts more derived, and you see that’s about right. Then the spine is very similar to the Neanderthal spine. The teeth were very small, the skull shaped much like some of the skulls assigned to Homo erectus, but the brain was about a third the size of the modern human brain.

Despite the small size of the brain, it seems almost certain that those many fossils got into those highly inaccessible cave locations because living H. naledi carried their dead into those locations. Water definitely did not wash those bones into those locations. Animals most certainly did not carry bones into those places. And because there are so many bones in two different locations, I’m happy to say my alternative hypothesis, which I never liked much, does not seem to be likely – I was afraid that predators or enemies might have forced those H naledi individuals to creep into very inaccessible locations and hide there until they died. I do think now that a burial type of behavior seems more likely, which is much nicer to think about.

At the time I first read about H naledi, the age of the fossils had not been established. The rock formations surrounding the bones couldn’t be dated, there weren’t any contemporary animal bones to date, and so that was a tough problem. But finally Berger and his colleagues decided they had so many bones and especially teeth that they could sacrifice a few to destructive testing. So now we know those bones are less than 450,000 years old, maybe as young as 250,000 years. This is remarkable, as just guessing from anatomy, most people were leaning toward those bones being more like two million years old. If those bones are as young as 250,000, they more than likely overlapped in time with early modern humans, during the period when modern humans were anatomically identical to contemporary modern populations but way before there is any evidence of tool use. At this time, there were definitely a lot of hominid species overlapping in time and space, and evidently Homo naledi was one more.

So … what can we conclude about the place of H naledi in our own evolutionary history? We can’t conclude much! I’m so pleased Lee Berger emphasizes that. Maybe H naledi evolved early from H erectus or some similar species and lasted a long time. Maybe some earlier ancestor gave rise to both H naledi and H erectus. Maybe something else.

At this point, as Berger points out, we have four known fossil specimens from Africa which share a basic skull shape with living people. Each of those skull types looks much more similar to modern humans than they do to H naledi or other, definitely older, species. But at the same time, each of those skulls is more different from the others than any modern human is different today. Do they all represent different species, distinct from each other and from modern humans?  Probably! We already know Neanderthals and Denisovans were contemporaries of modern humans and interbred with them, and we see genetic traces of at least one other species in our own DNA too. Now we have H. naledi, which may have, almost certain did, live surrounded by some or all these other species with their much bigger brains, quite possibly competing successfully for a long time. H. naledi was gracile, but overlaps in size with modern humans; the feet and legs were adapted for walking long distances and the hands seem about as well designed for grasping, which means this is a species that occupied the same broad niche as modern humans.

Hominids were SO much more diverse than the impression you’d get from pop culture. For nearly the whole span of hominid evolution, it was just normal to have way more than one species around in any given ecosystem at any given time. I mean, think of sub-Saharan Africa. We currently have African painted dogs, black-backed jackals, side-striped jackals, golden jackals, Ethiopian wolves, Cape foxes, and bat-eared foxes living in the same basic ecosystems right now. That is seven species of canids in four different genera. That is what it was like to be a hominid for most of prehistory! That is just so amazing to think about!

Personally, I would suggest reading this book in combination with Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, which is about unique aspects of human behavior, not intelligence but social behavior, that in his opinion are more likely to have made modern humans more successful than other hominids or apes. Henrich argues that it is not clear that individual intelligence was the specific advantage that led to the success of modern humans. The plausible long-term competitive success of small-brained species like H naledi lends support, in my opinion, for Henrich’s argument that our eventual success may have depended primarily on social learning and especially on the transmission of adaptive learned behavior from individual to individual across generations. Alternatively, it seems possible that social learning might have provided a small-brained species like H naledi a competitive advantage over other hominid species that may have been more intelligent individually, allowing them to live for a long time in competition with many other hominids. We don’t know! This is just so neat!

It’s things like this, rather than ideas about what might happen if someone went back and shot Hitler, that REALLY make me want a time machine — or at least a way to look back through time.

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Pippa Update

Three weeks since Pippa started on phenobarb!

Yesterday, I wasn’t super happy with her progress. She seemed disoriented or visually compromised (or both) all morning, though my mother says she seemed better in the afternoon.

Today, she seemed quite a bit better; some disorientation or visual problems this morning, but not nearly as much as yesterday; plus her eye was looking more fully open and normal; plus she plainly saw and responded to big objects. I don’t know if there’s going to be some fluctuation or if she’s doing plateaus followed by sudden improvements or what — both possibilities seem supported by some of what I observe.

She went for a walk with the other older dogs this morning; she’s capable of going for slow walks, thought not yet able to trot. We’ll see what another week brings! MOST dogs, my vet tells me, are fully acclimated to phenobarb by the time they’ve been taking it for a month. I don’t really know whether she’ll really recover to her former level or not, but, well, here’s hoping.

Pippa, as a young dog, extremely photogenic.

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Tuyo #2: NIKOLES

Well, I meant to have this out last week, but circumstances intervened.

However, I’ve just hit “publish” for the second book of the TUYO series, which is — you remember — actually a prequel. Although Amazon says it can take up to 72 hours to make a book available, in practice it never seems to be that long, so I’d bet this story is actually available tomorrow.

As you know, this is a prequel story. It’s a short novel, a little under 80,000 words, about half the length of TUYO. It’s also in third person rather than first.

The direct sequel to TUYO, in first person from Ryo’s point of view, will probably come out next year. The title is TARASHANA, and an excerpt from the first chapter is included at the end of NIKOLES. If you don’t recall, the Tarashana are the people who live north of the winter country, the people who are all mysteriously gone. Ryo refers to them briefly toward the beginning of TUYO. We are going to find out what happened there.

At this point, I can already say that TARASHANA will be another long novel. I have another direct sequel in mind that will let me show you all the summer country in more detail — and maybe part of the country to the south of the summer lands, the country with two Suns. I would not be surprised if I wind up with a series in which long first-person novels in a direct series are interspersed with shorter third-person novels from a variety of points of view.

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Sociological Fantasy

So, all those posts about sociological SF made me think about fantasy novels that have a sociological emphasis. Because some of them do! Sometimes it’s not just an emphasis on worldbuilding and developing the culture; sometimes a fantasy novel really uses the genre to consider social behavior and social development.

I’m not sure I can come up with a list of ten titles I think do this — though I bet you all can help fill in a top ten list — but I can think of some. In no order:

  1. The City and the City by Mieville. This is a great police procedural plus this weird social construct? aspect of reality? by which two cities overlap in space but, somehow, people in one city “unsee” features of the other city. This leads to strange social phenomena.
  2. Terry Pratchett’s social satire fantasy; ie Going Postal and Making Money and many others. No modern author was as successful at writing satire as Pratchett. If you consider satire about social norms to be sociological, well, there you go.
  3. The Dead River trilogy by Naomi Kritzer, which does SO MUCH with questions about the role of women and also slaves in society. Kritzer is dealing with questions like: is it right to demand that slaves seize their own freedom before welcoming them, as the Alashi do? What about freeing slaves who don’t want to be free? How do you define freedom anyway? What about killing a lot of people in order to free slaves, is that okay? This is a superb trilogy in every way, and also I think it fits to call it sociological fantasy.
  4. The Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce. This is such a good look at a society that is just developing ideas about the organization and role of police in society. Also the emphasis on forgery and how bad currency impacts society is interesting and unusual.
  5. The Inda series by Sherwood Smith. In some ways Smith is cheating here, by changing certain aspects of human nature and then building her societies and world. In other ways, it is just very interesting to see the kind of societies she builds after changing human nature. Plus, this is a great epic fantasy series, one of my favorites.

That’s five! What do you all think of the category “sociological fantasy?” Is that a thing? Should it be a thing? If it should, what are some other candidates for this sub-subgenre?

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Sale: TUYO

So, TUYO will be featured in a blog tour over the next week or so. I’m dropping the price to $2.99 for the duration. By the time you read this, that price should have gone live.

If you’ve been thinking of picking up a copy, this would be a good time. Or mention it to a friend! Or send it as a gift!

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Pippa is doing pretty well

Pippa update, and to those of you who expressed good wishes and / or asked how she was doing, thanks!

You recall she had two simultaneous problems: an eye injury that was not healing properly, plus being put on phenobarb so she was practically drugged unconscious.

The new antibiotic ointment and pills did the trick, and now her eye looks okay, so that’s a huge relief. We’re going to continue with the terramycin ointment for a week. She gets that in her right eye every eight hours and a different kind of eye drop in her left eye every 12 hours for the rest of her life (that is for dry eye). This means that four times a day, I say to myself, “Okay, which way is right?” and pretend to hold a pencil. Seriously, that’s the only way I can be sure I’m putting the correct eye stuff in the correct eye.

Meanwhile! Two weeks ago, this was Pippa’s condition: unable to walk more than two steps without falling over, plus asleep 99% of the time, plus falls off the bed and has to be crated at night, plus confinement makes her anxious so she is on Trazadone to help her tolerate that.

As of today, this is Pippa: able to walk 20-30 steps without falling, more or less able to move around on tile as well as carpet, starting to be able to cope with uneven ground in yard, sleeps more than usual but not remarkably so, able to sleep on bed. She’s also much more responsive and, of course, she can now open both her eyes, which has to help even if her vision is not great.

So … she is not back to her old self, but she has made a lot of progress and I think we’re starting to see the light at the end of this tunnel. I have some hope that by Monday she will not need constant supervision to keep her from potentially falling off furniture — and if not by Monday, then surely by next Friday.

Here is Pippa quite a few years ago, with a lot of qualifying ribbons she picked up at … let me see, this must have been a CKCSC show … for Rally or regular obedience, I don’t remember.

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Top Ten Sociological SF

Okay, following up from various recent posts: It’s almost too easy to pick out a top ten list of books. I could fill out half of it with CJC novels before I had to look elsewhere … in fact, let me do that:

  1. Foreigner
  2. Chanur
  3. Cyteen
  4. 40,000 in Gehenna
  5. Cuckoo’s Egg

Then I would have to think about books by other authors. Rather than filling out half the list with works by one author, maybe it makes more sense to go for authors in the first place and do a Top Ten List of Authors of Sociological SF. CJ Cherryh can then get just one spot, making the rest of the list more interesting, as well as more of a challenge.

Here, then, is that Top Ten list.

  1. CJ Cherryh — a huge proportion of her SF, as opposed to her fantasy, has a powerful sociological component to it. I’d put the Foreigner series in the top spot of all sociological SF ever and go on from there.
  2. Octavia Butler — all her work, except maybe Fledgling, is sociological SF. Maybe that one too; I’ve only read it once and don’t remember much about it.
  3. Ursula K LeGuin — obviously most of her work explored sociological themes and situations.
  4. Isaac Asimov — it’s been an awfully long time, and I never much cared for Asimov’s work myself, but surely Foundation and I, Robot both count as seminal works of sociological SF.
  5. Kim Stanley Robinson — the Mars trilogy could be read as hard SF, but I think it’s (far) more accurately characterized as sociological SF. Not just that one, either; a lot or all of Robinson’s work explores the development of future societies in response to technological changes.
  6. Connie Willis — Bellwether and Crosstalk are the ones I’m thinking of, but surely others of hers could also fit the sociological SF subgenre.
  7. Eleanor Amason — I’ve only read a couple of hers, but she’s written quite a few books. Very few SF novels are as thoroughly and explicitly sociological in emphasis as Woman of the Iron People.
  8. Ian Banks — the Culture novels are all primarily about envisioning a post-scarcity future and look at least as much like sociological SF as space opera.
  9. Elizabeth Moon — her space opera offers a strong emphasis on how longevity advances impact society; but more than that, The Speed of Dark is such an incredible book that I have to include her on this list.
  10. Your suggestion here — who have I missed?

I realize there are any number of classic sociological SF works, one per author, that would make most Top Ten lists for this subgenre. I mean: Fahrenheit 451; 1984; Brave New World. Probably others. But for the author to wind up on a list of top authors, I sort of think they ought to have a body of work with a sociological emphasis.

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