Claymation

I’ve been enjoying N. K. Jemisin’s science fiction and fantasy. I mentioned somewhere that I was delighted to see an African-American woman becoming a successful writer, so someone suggested I might like Nnedi Okorafor. From my inter-library loan system I ordered Binti, the first of a new series of books by her.

Not to keep you in suspense, Binti sucks. It’s just appallingly bad.

On realizing that, I had to step back and take a look at my own attitudes. Was I perhaps reacting negatively to this book, or proposing to criticize it publicly, out of unconscious racism?

I had a look around on the Web, to try to learn more about Okorafor. If she was a talented high-school student, I should certainly maintain radio silence, in Thomas Dolby’s phrase. But no. She wrote this novella at the age of 30. It’s not her first published book. Worse yet, it won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novella in 2016. What the actual fuck??? Did I get a defective copy of the book that someone sandwiched an entirely different story into? Not a tenable hypothesis, but I’m grasping at straws here. How could something so deficient in basic science fiction technique possibly win those awards?

The story is easily summarized. Binti is a 16-year-old girl. She is part of a smallish and apparently rather isolated ethnic group on Earth. She’s also a math genius. She has secretly applied to and been accepted by Oomza University, a really big, prestigious university on some other planet somewhere in the galaxy. How she plans to pay her tuition or living expenses is never discussed, but we know she has run off secretly, not even telling her parents, so they’re not the deep pockets.

She smears red clay all over her body, and in her hair. All the time. It’s what her people do. They do it instead of bathing, because they live in an area where water is scarce. You may, if you like, imagine the colonies of bacteria that are thriving under the layer of red clay, but I’m not going to go there.

Here is Okorafor’s explanation for this bizarre habit. In Binti’s voice, “On my people’s land, fresh water, water humans can drink, is so little that we do not use it to bathe as so many others do. We wash with otjize, a mix of red clay from our land and oils from our local flowers.” I’m all for multiculturalism, but this is weird. First, they’re not bathing, because they don’t scrape the clay off the way the ancient Romans scraped off oil — they leave it smeared all over their bodies. Second, flowers don’t produce oils. Third, to grow flowers at all you have to have water. Fourth, if wikipedia is to be believed, clays “become hard, brittle and non–plastic upon drying.” Clay is only flexible to begin with because of its water content. In this case the water has been replaced with oil, but even if you start with dry, brittle clay and add oil, you have a worse problem. Your body is now covered with oily clay, which means your sweat can’t evaporate. If you live in the desert, as Binti’s people do, you will very soon die of heat stroke because your body can’t cool itself by sweating. Either that, or the clay will be dripping off of you as it mingles with your sweat (although oil and water don’t mix — I’m not planning to experiment in order to research this), so you’ll constantly have to apply more clay.

For reasons that would be tedious to explain and that also don’t make a lick of sense, the clay is an important part of the plot, so it’s smeared on practically every page. On balance, though, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s picturesque, but picturesque is not guaranteed to be good science.

Binti hops on an interstellar ship that’s going to carry a bunch of students off to Oomza Uni. The trip will take only a few weeks — major faster-than-light travel is part of the scenario. The ship is a bio-engineered shrimp, which is laughable, but whatever. Her private room in the ship has a window, which is pretty silly, both for safety reasons and because there’s not much to see out the window when you’re traveling faster than light. Okorafor never bothers to tell us what’s visible out the window. Also … a private stateroom with a window for a 16-year-old student? That’s a heck of a scholarship she’s got.

There are other weird little problems like this. The ship plainly has artificial gravity, because in one scene she’s struggling to pick up a tray that’s heavily laden. Yet toward the end of the book one of the aliens comments that Binti’s feet are wobbly because, now that they’ve landed, she needs to get used to the gravity. Also, when the ship enters the atmosphere her ears pop. This is a standard thing on airplanes, and might even happen on the Space Shuttle for all I know, but it would absolutely not happen on an interstellar spaceship entering the atmosphere.

The editing mistakes are minor — “peak” instead of “peek,” “sunk” instead of “sank,” a stray comma where one doesn’t belong. The editors at Tom Doherty Associates are supposed to catch this kind of thing, but these days editing ain’t what it used to be. The pacing tends to be tedious; Okorafor jets away from an action scene to tell us more about how Binti grew up, and that’s kind of unforgivable. Bottom of page 27: “Everyone was dead. The dinner hall stank of blood.” Top of page 28: “None of my family had wanted me to go to Oomza Uni. Even my best friend Dele hadn’t wanted me to go.” Head spinning now.

I’m getting sidetracked. The primary incident in the story is this: The ship, which is whipping along much faster than light in interstellar space, is boarded by a bunch of hostile aliens whose ship has docked with the human ship. Two or possibly three things about this are flatly impossible.

First, interstellar space is really, really big. Detecting another ship at all when it’s traveling along some other vector than your ship at a faster than light speed and then matching velocity with it so as to dock and board — wait, we can’t even call it “velocity,” can we? If they’re traveling faster than light, it isn’t velocity. Whatever. In an episode of Star Trek, aliens could possibly beam onto your ship, because beaming technology is just as silly as faster-than-light travel. But Okorafor specifically tells us that the alien ship docked with the human ship.

Note to aspiring writers: Spaceships are not at all like ocean-going ships. Do not confuse the two technologies. Just don’t.

Second, no alarm is raised when this happens. The students are quietly eating lunch in the lounge when the aliens burst in and gruesomely murder everybody. Everybody except Binti, that is. No alarm? How could the crew on the bridge possibly not have noticed an approaching alien ship?

Third, and maybe I’m being too picky here, to dock one ship to another when there are breathing entities in both ships, you have to produce a decent vacuum seal at the end of the docking tube so as not to lose air. But these aliens have been pretty much at war with humans for a while now — so is it credible that their docking tube would be mechanically compatible with the hatch on the human ship? Not really. And they must have blown open the hatch from the outside (without causing alarm bells to ring, but I already mentioned that, didn’t I?), because the hatches on spaceships are not often equipped with exterior door knobs.

From there, it gets worse. Binti happens to be carrying an artifact — some sort of mysterious “old technology” she picked up in the desert — that both protects her from being butchered by the aliens and then allows her to converse with them in their own language. Then we learn that the “chief” of these tentacled aliens has had his “stinger,” a lethal anatomical appendage, stolen by humans. How they managed to steal it without killing him is not explained.

The stinger is now, you guessed it, in a museum of weaponry at Oomza University. He wants it back.

Let’s assume (Okorafor is vague about this) that the chief is only the captain of this one alien ship. He’s not the head honcho of their whole spacefaring race, because what would the alien emperor be doing cruising around on a spaceship? The order-of-magnitude confusion between one ship of hostile aliens and a whole hostile alien society is something that Okorafor never bothers to clear up, but whatever. Let’s also assume that the chief has figured out (somehow) that this particular ship is full of students headed for Oomza Uni, which will enable him to use the ship as a sort of Trojan horse to land a bunch of fighters on the Oomza planet to try to get his stinger back. That’s his plan. This would be quixotic, as the aliens would quickly end up dead, but let’s assume his honor demands that he try it. Okay.

The conclusion of the story is, as you may have guessed, that Binti single-handedly manages to negotiate a settlement between the chief and the bigwigs at Oomza Uni. They return the chief’s stinger and invite one of the tentacled aliens to remain as a new student. Happy-happy joy-joy, interstellar peace and good vibes achieved at last. It’s not hard to see that Okorafor was likely inspired by stories about the return of pilfered archaeological treasures, and that’s certainly a worthwhile topic for a story. An amputated anatomical part is an awfully big stretch, not to mention that it can successfully be reattached, but I’d be willing to cut the author a little slack on that.

No, the problem that remains unresolved and indeed unaddressed at the end of the story is that the chief’s aliens have butchered several hundred passengers and crew members on the human ship — a huge crime — and yet they’re allowed to return to space and sail away, free and clear.

Isn’t that special?

I really ought to start voting in the Nebulas. It’s only one vote, but if I can do my part to prevent a repeat of this kind of train wreck, reading all those novels and stories would be time well spent.

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Those Darn Pronouns

The question of what pronoun to use (he? she? he/she? they?) plagues writers. With less frequency but deeper consequences, it plagues everybody else. Today I got into a wrangle with a guy — on Facebook, as usual — who referred to Wendy Carlos as “he/she.” I politely explained that this is not correct. “She” is correct.

The discussion went downhill from there.

Since the Oblong Blob is mainly about writing fiction, and has been for a couple of years now, I’ll try to bring writing into the discussion, but we’re going to go off on a tangent, so buckle up.

Recent fantasy fiction has gotten pretty good about portraying gender variance. Alison Goodman’s Eon has a character who is genetically male but socially female. So does Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. And it’s no big deal. These characters are not brought into to the stories because of their gender variance — they’re part of the stories for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with that. Most writers have figured out by now that the real world does not resemble the 1950s fantasies of Ozzie & Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. If you’re writing about real people, you’re going to encounter a variety of personal traits, including various sexual proclivities and various forms of personal identity.

As an aside, one of the first efforts in this direction in speculative fiction was Theodore Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost.” You can read up on it in wikipedia if you want to know more. Its sympathetic depiction of male homosexuality was quite controversial when it was published in 1953.

By now only a few troglodytes in the writing community are insisting that “he” can be used as a pronoun to refer to a non-specific person who might be either male or female. Most of us have gracefully adjusted. You can use “he or she.” You can alternate between “he” and “she” in alternating paragraphs. Often, you can substitute “they” without harm. I will sometimes default to “she” as a sort of affirmative action, in order to counterbalance centuries of “he.”

Turning from the literary to the social, what still confuses many people about the greater visibility of trans women and trans men in our world is that they aren’t sure what pronoun to use. Really, though, this is just bigotry. They can’t seem to embrace the idea that a trans woman is to be referred to as “she” because the very existence of trans individuals alarms and upsets them.

The short version of what to say to people who try to insert “he/she” when talking about my friend Wendy or any other trans woman is, “Get over it.” But a more detailed discussion may be helpful, so let’s go there.

The usual defense of “he/she” is to point to the XY chromosomes of the individual in question. How can you be “she” if you have a Y chromosome? But in fact there’s a fair variety of genetic conditions that can influence sexual identity even at the cellular level. There is, to give just one example, a genetic condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which an XY individual appears anatomically female because the relevant anatomical structures don’t “see” the male hormones in the bloodstream.

But this is a side issue. The chromosomal endowment of an individual is not what gendered pronouns reference. You may think it is, but it’s not. Gender (the question of whether someone is “he” or “she”) is a social construct, not a matter of genetics, nor of anatomy.

Consider: You wander into your local coffee shop and stand in line for a beverage and biscotti. You look around. Some of the people in your field of view will clearly be of the “she” variety, and some will clearly be “he.” More than 95% of the time, you will be in no doubt whatever about whether you’re looking at a “he” or a “she.”

And yet, you have not performed a genetic work-up on ANY of these people! You don’t even know anything about their anatomical endowment — you don’t know what they have or don’t have between their legs. Your judgment as to whom you should address as “sir” and whom to address as “ma’am” is based entirely on social cues, with possibly a little help from secondary anatomical characteristics such as facial hair or width of hips.

The structuring of your social activities (and possibly your emotions, which might include sexual arousal) is based entirely on visual information that is not even remotely scientific. So don’t start lecturing me about how someone with a Y chromosome is really “he” in spite of the visual evidence to the contrary. Just don’t.

Last month, as I was walking across the parking lot toward the gym, a charming three-year-old girl, a complete stranger, said to me, “Are you a boy?” I smiled and said, “Yes, I’m a boy. A boy with a ponytail.” The point is, this little girl was not asking about my chromosomes. She wasn’t asking about my anatomy. Whether she even knows that boys usually have a pee-pee and girls usually don’t — that’s none of my business, and even if she knows it, it was certainly not her primary concern. What she was asking was how she was to view me socially. Girls often have long hair, and boys, in her limited experience, usually don’t. She was researching social cues, because when you’re three you know that some people are “he” and some are “she,” but it can be hard sometimes to figure out which is which.

If you’re an adult and still resort to “he/she” in describing people whom everybody else accepts is a “she,” you’re acting like a three-year-old. Grow up.

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Cruel Encouragement

What is one to say to an aspiring writer who is truly bad? Today on one of the Facebook writers’ groups where I hang out, a fellow posted what he described as a pitch and a synopsis. They were among the worst pieces of writing I’ve ever read. His ideas were bad, his approach to describing his ideas was bad, and his control of punctuation and capitalization was appalling.

From his use of the word “pitch,” one could reasonably imagine that he intends to submit his work to agents. He will be ignored (no response at all) or summarily rejected — and that’s bound to be painful for him. Wouldn’t it be a kindness to say, “Look here: You really ought to take up ballroom dancing or stamp collecting, or just pop open a beer and watch some TV. You’ll never be a writer — it’s hopeless.” Isn’t it actively cruel to respond to his hideous efforts by saying, “Keep writing! Do what you love!”

Even those of us who already write at a professional level can learn and improve. As Joe E. Lewis says at the end of Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect. If something in one of my stories isn’t working, or if I’ve made a word usage error, I want to be told! But what good will it do to tell someone, “Even a professional editor couldn’t help you turn this into a publishable story. Throw it out — it’s a dead loss.”

Is it cruel to tell someone they’ll never be a writer? Or is it more cruel to let them persist, perhaps for years, in their folly? If you’re truly writing for your own enjoyment, then fine — write whatever you like, and then put it away in a drawer and forget about it. But if you intend to go public, even to the extent of posting a pitch and a synopsis on Facebook and asking for feedback, you’re clearly writing not just for your own enjoyment but in hopes of something beyond that. Possibly you hope to be praised, or possibly your goal is to provide readers with an enjoyable experience. (Those are quite different goals, by the way.) In either case, isn’t honest feedback warranted, even at the risk of causing pain?

When does honesty turn to sadism? I wish I knew.

There’s a sidebar to this question. It’s quite normal in a Facebook writers’ group for someone whom I know to be a bad writer to offer advice to someone else — either to someone who might have real promise, or to someone who is even worse. Should I respond by saying, “No, that’s not right”? Or should I let the halt lead the blind, as the saying goes?

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Juggling

In the process of writing a story, there’s a lot to keep track of. You’ve got 17 balls in the air at once, or more likely a diverse collection of stuff that includes a bowling ball, a lighted torch, a razor blade, a slice of pizza, and a live gerbil, and you have to be able to juggle them all — not just keep from dropping any of them, but make it look easy!

Right now I’m critiquing a middle-grade novel by a friend of mine. It’s an interesting story, and my friend has worked hard on rewrites. I approve of rewriting, don’t get me wrong. But as you’re rewriting, you need to remember where the bowling ball and the live gerbil are.

In chapter 2, my friend mentions an offstage character by name. In chapter 4, when we meet him, she refers to him strictly by description, as if he’s a stranger to the viewpoint character. In chapter 4, the vice-principal has a drawer full of cell phones that have been taken away from students, but back in chapter 2 one of the lead character’s friends has a cell phone plainly visible on the playground and isn’t worried that it might be confiscated.

It’s all about continuity. You have to know where the lighted torch and the slice of pizza are, because that information may become important at any moment.

I’ve been known to make the same kind of mistake. In my own rewrite process (yes, I’m still working on The Firepearl Chalice, thanks for asking), yesterday I spotted a line where one character is asking another about something that she had no way of knowing about. Was that mistake left over from an earlier draft, or was I just being sloppy when I wrote the conversation? Who knows? Fortunately, my computer is equipped with a Delete key.

I’ve reached the point in the rewrite where, as I contemplate the next chapter, I’m making a little list of the things some of the main characters know or don’t know at that point. Also what their agendas are. It helps to revise a scene if you know that Clothnac knows Roma is probably the Scion’s new mistress, and suspects that she is the one who sabotaged the barges using a magical implement she borrowed from him, and can guess who gave her the emerald pendant, but doesn’t know she was arrested.

Roma being arrested — yes, about that. I added a bit in which she is planning to put the signet ring she stole back into the desk from which she stole it. Shortly afterward she’s arrested, and I realized the officers were going to search her — because why wouldn’t they? And she still has the signet ring! So I had to figure out how she would keep them from finding it. If I had added the sentence about her planning to put it back, and then added the passage where she’s searched, without noticing that I had given her the ring, the live gerbil would have dropped to the floor and scampered away, and then where would I be? It’s all juggling.

Fortunately, Roma is fiendishly clever. She gets into awful scrapes, and then I have to sit and stare at the computer screen until she figures out how to talk her way out of her latest mess. And she isn’t even the main character. Sometimes rewriting is fun, there’s that too.

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Lost Girl

I read a lot of genre fiction, but I’ve never quite had the patience to read literature. Read half of The Great Gatsby, lost interest. Read maybe a third of Tristram Shandy, lost interest. Tried Ulysses, didn’t get far. Liked Dickens, but Dickens was popular fiction, in his own day, in his own way.

Deciding to up my game, I sat down this week and actually read an entire novel by Henry James from start to finish. This is rather an accomplishment; even people who admire James will admit, if pressed, that at times his prose is nearly impenetrable. His sentences are long, laden with detours in the form of embedded clauses, and studded with abstract nouns whose point of reference is likely to be less than clear. If your eye skips past the word “as” early in the sentence, the grammar will fall apart on you. You’ll have to go back and read it again, more carefully this time. Also, there’s the pronoun problem. Two women and a girl are sitting at a table having lunch, and James is likely to use “she” or “her” quite casually, without troubling about the antecedent of the pronoun. He knew who he meant. If you don’t know, he leaves it up to you to puzzle it out.

His prose style has been compared to impressionist painting, but I’m not sure I buy that comparison. Granted, he’s often vague to the point of being gauzy, but I don’t think he was trying to be vague. I think he was trying to be absolutely precise, and in his own mind succeeding.

James was homosexual, and came of age during the Civil War in the U.S., at a time when it was simply impossible to be open about such things. He was also keenly perceptive and very, very bright. My guess about his prose is that from an early age he knew that it was unwise and unsafe to express his feelings, and for that reason developed the firm habit of processing the feelings through his intellect before allowing them to be seen or heard. When he tries to be precise about the emotions in a given scene, he calls on this habit in its most erudite form, and the result is almost to hide the emotions from the reader. Certainly to hide them from any but the most patient and attentive reader.

I have James’s complete works on Kindle. It was a free download; I don’t remember from where. The file opened to What Maisie Knew, so I read that.

It’s a painful downer of a story. Maisie is six years old at the start of the novel, and James doesn’t trouble about the exact chronology of the story; by the end she may be nine or ten. All of the adults in Maisie’s life are either self-involved or, in the case of the governess, Mrs. Wix, appallingly narrow-minded. Maisie gets batted around like a tennis ball. She has no friends her own age. The adults don’t trouble to explain to her what’s really going on. They’re all having affairs, that’s what’s going on, but of course in the Victorian era nobody was going to explain that to a little girl. The story is told from Maisie’s point of view, so the reader has to work it out. That part isn’t too tricky.

Sometimes the adults use Maisie for their own selfish ends. Sometimes they talk over her head and expect her to understand subtle implications of Victorian morality that are far beyond her. In the final scene, they demand that she choose which of them she will stay with — and of course she makes the wrong choice, because they’ve left her no choice at all. The end.

It’s creepy. It reminds me of the scene at the end of Chinatown where the old man leads the girl away, though without the sexual implication. Maisie isn’t a sexual victim, but she’s a social and emotional victim, which in my view is almost as bad. She’s a victim of Victorian morality and a bunch of spectacularly heedless adults — and it’s not entirely clear, at least from my first reading, that James even disapproved of that. He may have meant something entirely different by the story than what a modern reader sees.

I should probably try to find an essay online that would give me more insight into the story, but it’s so distasteful I’m not sure I want to wallow in it any further. I’d rather have another fling at Tristram Shandy.

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Cringeworthy

Are there any standards at all by which a novel can legitimately be judged? Or is the entirety of literature truly a flat and featureless plain on which each reader, and each writer, can with equal justification embrace his or her own tastes and perceptions, free of the need to grapple with anything that is difficult or uncongenial?

This is not an easy question to answer. I’ve been reading The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth. It’s tough sledding — sometimes thought-provoking but sometimes baffling. In the opening chapters, he deconstructs in an erudite and painstaking way some of the claims that have been made over the last century about what an author must, or must not, do in order to produce a great work. His thesis, to the extent I’ve been able to grasp it, seems to be that a novel has to be judged by its own standards, and not by too narrow a set of pre-ordained criteria.

Reading what Henry James, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky said about literature is worthwhile, certainly. If their view of literature is too narrow, it’s still far better informed than my own. But what would they say about a truly bad novel? What are the failures that will drag a work of fiction down — that will make it unreadable? I don’t mean failures of grammar, though those are distressingly common. Given that the sentences are reasonably constructed, what is it that makes a bad novel cringeworthy?

I’m going to propose that, at the core, what makes a novel bad is that it fails to depict the human experience. It falsifies. This can be done in several ways, I’m sure. Maybe later I’ll make a list.

I spotted this red flag tonight, or perhaps it was a red cape to charge at, as I was using Amazon’s lovely Look Inside feature to take a quick glance at a self-published fantasy novel. I would never have thought to look at this particular novel, and would have been happier, I’m sure, but someone (perhaps the writer herself, using a pseudonymous account) was promoting it on a Facebook group where I sometimes hang out. The promotion was flagrantly inept, and that piqued my curiosity. Could the book itself possibly be as inept as the promotional effort?

Yes, it could.

In the opening pages of Tansey Morgan’s The Labyrinth Queen, just published today and already “a smash hit” if you believe the promotion, Cailyn is about to be auctioned by her father to the highest bidder. We don’t know how old she is, but apparently she’s of marriageable age.

This could be a gripping moment. But alas, the tone of the opening entirely fails to confront the fact that young Cailyn is about to be raped by a stranger, and knows it. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Cool, autumn air rippled across the open window, pushing a handful of brown leaves into my chambers. The cool gentle breeze caressed my arms, causing my skin to prickle all over. I shut the window to keep the chill from invading my room any further, but it had made its mark on my body already, aggravating the unease welling in the pit of my stomach.

Tonight was the night of the auction — my father was going to sell me to the highest bidder from a room full of nobles and dignitaries — and I wasn’t ready.

On the other side of the window, beyond the palace walls, the town of Swiftstorm was beginning to come alive for the night’s festivities. Chimneys puffed tresses of white smoke, lanterns all around were being lit by the townspeople, and small store owners were setting up strings of flowers, lanterns, and wreaths in anticipation of the guests that would be arriving from far away castles and cities. Above the black roofs, clouds pregnant with rain threatened to split open and pour themselves out onto the land; surely a blessing for farmers, eager for the final harvest of the year.

The prose in this passage is not good. Note the repetition of “cool” in the opening paragraph, the fact that the breeze is blowing across the window rather than into it, and the unlikely business of a cool breeze on Cailyn’s arms giving her goose bumps “all over.” (She is wearing a corset. Goose bumps under a corset are, shall we say, not very likely.) Note the author’s failure to understand how farming works: I’m pretty sure farmers don’t want it to rain just before a harvest. You really don’t want your grain crops sodden. Note how the viewpoint leaves Cailyn in the third paragraph to tell the reader things she can’t possibly see.

Further on, we’ll learn that Cailyn’s father is the king of Swiftstorm. It’s not a nation, not even a city — he’s the king of a town. And Cailyn is getting dressed for the auction in a lovely gown, but there are no servants to help her. A princess with no servants?

Setting all that aside, however, the real failure of this opening is that the imagery is overwhelmingly positive. We have “gentle,” “caress,” “come alive,” “festivities,” “puffed tresses,” “strings of flowers,” “wreaths,” “pregnant” (!), “blessing,” and “eager.” Yet Cailyn is about to be sold by her father to a stranger, after which, we can be fairly certain, she will be raped.

And what is her reaction? “I wasn’t ready.” This is not ironic understatement. It’s a thousand-watt beacon shining down on the fact that Tansey Morgan is failing to depict Cailyn’s real emotional experience.

Morgan seems to want to have it both ways. She wants a dramatic, suspenseful opening that will draw the reader into the story, but she also wants to write a fluffy romance suitable for readers who are probably young and have a limited range of interests and experiences. As a result, the real emotional impact of being sold and raped is nowhere to be found.

Cailyn does seem to be not quite convinced about the whole business. She has “unease” in her tummy. But the unease is plainly less important to the author than the fluffy teen romance angle. Being raped is being portrayed as a romantic adventure, complete with corsets.

Think I’m overreacting? Here’s the description of our imperiled heroine:

I stepped up to the long mirror and inspected myself. I was the tallest sibling, taller than my sisters. Back [sic] hair fell around my shoulders like a cascade of darkness itself, perfectly framing my sharp, elfin features, almond shaped eyes, and my supple, supple lips; all qualities I didn’t feel deserving of.

Goes to show, you can’t trust spell-check. Her back hair is falling (upward?) around her shoulders and, in the process, framing her facial features. Is her face on her shoulder? And those supple, supple lips! She doesn’t think she deserves them, but I’m here to tell you, those supple lips are going to come in handy before long, one way or another.

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The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Nora Jemisin is a rising star in the world of fantasy. I’m enjoying her work, though not without reservations. I’ve just finished reading the Broken Earth trilogy, and now I’m starting on the two-volume Dreamblood story.

The Broken Earth story (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky) is an odd mix of fantasy and science fiction. At first it seems to be SF — a distant-future story in which plate tectonics have gotten out of hand. Eventually we learn that the iron core of the Earth is sentient and angry, the extent of the lead characters’ psychic powers becomes hard to reconcile with any sort of science, and some other characters are 40,000 years old and can travel through solid rock. So, fantasy. A couple of story elements are never properly explained, and the ending is slow and heavy-going, but by golly I made it all the way through.

I just wish somebody would sit Jemisin down and explain the basics of celestial mechanics to her.

The troubles in her future Earth are massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The human race is hanging on, but it’s not easy. At some point in the distant past, a high-tech attempt to harness the energy at the Earth’s core went horribly wrong, and the Moon was catapulted away, out of its comfortable orbit. The characters in the first book don’t even know what the word “Moon” means.

That’s not a bad premise. But somewhere along in Book 2 we learn that the Moon is not quite gone. Its orbit has become highly eccentric, but now and again it returns. Jemisin is a bit vague about how often this happens, but one set of historical documents tossed into the mix suggests it may happen every 30 or 40 years.

This makes no sense whatever, and for two reasons. First, if the Moon showed up every 30 or 40 years, the word would still have a meaning. People would darn well look up and see it. Even if it wasn’t visible this year, the fact that it was due to return would be known. But that idea is explicitly denied in Book 1.

The more serious problem is, of course, that such an orbit is impossible. A 40-year orbit would send the Moon out beyond the orbits of Jupiter (12 years) and Saturn (30 years). At that distance, the gravitational pull of the Earth would be insignificant. The Moon would be in a free orbit around the Sun, and no longer tethered to the Earth at all. Its path might occasionally bring it close to the Earth, but such occasions would be infrequent and would occur very irregularly.

So now I’m starting Dreamblood, and on page 17 of The Killing Moon she does it again. This book is clearly going to be a fantasy, with no SF overtones, but that’s not an excuse. Now we have a moon that is, for the most part, only visible at night. Here’s what she wrote, in what we’re to understand as a sort of creation myth of the world of the story (though given that the story is fantasy, I suppose we can’t rule out the possibility that the moon and sun are actually sentient beings — I’ll have to get back to you on that after I’ve read further):

Now they [the sun and moon] live apart as husband and wife, she in the night and he in the day. Always he longs for her, and the days shorten and lengthen as he strains to rise earlier, set later, all for a chance to glimpse her. With time she has grown fond of him, for he has been humble and well-behaved since their marriage. Every so often, she rises early so he can gaze upon her. Once in a great while she lets him catch up to her, and he darkens his face to please her, and they join in careful lovemaking. And sometimes in the night when he cannot see her, she misses his foolish antics and pines for him, and darkens her own face.

The last two sentences describe eclipses, and that’s all right. But the clear implication of the first part of the passage is that for years at a time the moon is only to be seen at night, though occasionally it may rise a little before sunset or not set until shortly after dawn.

Here again, the orbital dynamics are flatly impossible. A moon cannot possibly orbit in this manner. It would have to be essentially stationary, positioned on the night-side of the planet and orbiting the sun with exactly the same periodicity as the planet — except that once in a while it goes for a little trip and drifts around to the sun-side so there’s a solar eclipse.

If you’re going to write a novel in which a moon is mentioned, you have an obligation to get it right. The moon is not a literary device, to be tossed around however you please. It’s a great big ball of rock, and it obeys some rather simple physical laws.

I do realize that some knucklehead may feel obliged to respond, “But this is fantasy! Why not be creative with how the moon works?” Yes, well, even in fantasy the normal laws of physics have to be followed. If water flows uphill, it’s because a wizard or a god is doing something to make it flow uphill. It doesn’t just flow uphill because the author thought it would be a neat literary twist.

If the moon is coming and going like a yo-yo on a string, then a character in the story has to be holding the string and making it do that. If water runs uphill for no good reason, then we can expect a rabbit with a pocket-watch to come scurrying along at any moment, and a game of croquet using flamingos as mallets won’t be far behind.

Violating the laws of physics for no good reason is just sloppy writing. And when I see a really good writer indulge in sloppy writing, it pains me.

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