Six days have passed since my last post in the #lexember series, which means it’s time to add a few new words to my lexicon. There are more than six here; while I personally find the syndetic conjunctions fascinating, you may be more interested in the married sisters and the cults of obsessive friendship.
This time: Unions Grammatical and Personal.
Ty Barbary has turned me on to #lexember, a conlang-building activity in which participants build one new word per day throughout the month of December. In the interest of not spamming, I’ll be updating every five or six days with a new sequence of words and some basic grammar. Since I’m currently writing Weigenland, in which Weigers, Erekoi, and Heirae attempt to learn about each other’s cultures in (nominal) peacetime, I’ll be using #lexember to develop the Heirae language and its Erekoi dialect.
This time: On Myths and Meteorology.
I’m about 111k into Weigenland, the sequel to Erekos — and although I knew going in that it would be a very different book, I’m startled at times by all of the very small ways in which it’s different.
- The characters’ speech is never rendered in dialect. I read enough Brian Jacques when I was a child to have developed a well-conditioned aversion to dialect, but it worked for me in Erekos because the narrator’s voice was coming from a strong oral/folkloric tradition. In a very orthographic way, the narrator was “doing voices” as the characters spoke. The narrator of Weigenland just notes in passing whether the character’s accent is strong and what its characteristics are.
- While we’re on the subject, the narrator doesn’t jerk the readers around as much. A friend of mine said to me a few days ago, “I laughed at some of your romantic descriptions of the weather, and I don’t think I was supposed to.” I answered, “Yeah, you kind of were supposed to. This narrator is the kind of jerk who will give you a romantic description of a storm with a straight face and dare you to laugh. The kind of jerk who will quote Lord of the Rings and see if you noticed.” In fact, if it hadn’t been for my editorial team, the narrator of Erekos would’ve been even more insufferable; they (wisely) counseled me to cut a few scenes where the narrator essentially calls the reader on the carpet and asks what kind of story she thinks this is, anyway. The narrator of Weigenland is a much less intrusive, garrulous, self-aware narrator; this narrator is not trying to prod or call out the reader, but instead to give an accurate and careful portrait of what characters are doing, thinking, and feeling, and why they might choose not to show it.
- The third-person perspective is deeper. In Erekos, I used alternating third-person perspective (more or less), but because I had such a talky narrator, I never felt weird about telling the readers what other characters were thinking and feeling while I was in someone else’s head. It was a sort of omniscient narration that was very comfortable for me to write, because as the writer, I do always know what all of the characters are thinking at any point in an interaction. However, in Weigenland, I’m very alert to what my editors would call “POV slips” — I’m not allowed to settle even briefly in a second character’s head, and my characters instead have to infer what the people around them are thinking through gesture, expression, and intonation. It must be incredibly frustrating for the poor dears.
- It’s harder to make clear that everyone has a legitimate agenda. One of the gifts of writing Erekos — and the gift I least expected — was how many readers recognized that Milaus was really and earnestly trying to do the best he could for his country, and he simply didn’t have the tools to do it at present. In Weigenland, I have to keep reminding myself that because some of the less overtly sympathetic characters don’t get chapters of their own, I need to work harder in other characters’ chapters in order to establish their competence, their judgment, and why they might genuinely be liked.
- Above all else, Weigenland is a character-driven novel. In the writing circles in which I move, people generally shake down into at least one of a few categories: character-driven, plot-driven, world-driven, or theme-driven writers. Myself, I’m world-driven, as the geographic titles of my books suggest. Theme takes a very close second; some of my favorite reviews are the ones that speculate on what Erekos was “about.” I’m weaker on character, and so it’s been a bit of a wild ride, throwing myself into a novel governed by the characters’ choices, sentiments, and beliefs. I’ve gotten to know all of the recurring characters better (and particularly Jeiger), and I’ve been so proud to watch the new characters learn about themselves and realize that they’ve made serious mistakes. It’s been more rewarding than I ever could’ve imagined.
While I love reading about characters and their exploits, I can find plenty of authors who do character well. I know an author’s one to watch, though, when I can tell that he or she has devoted plenty of attention to climate and geology. However, most writers tend to prefer language and psychology over geology and climatology, so finding a world with a somewhat unrealistic climate and morphology is par for the course — and, to some extent, justified by SF/F’s engagement with the unreal.
This doesn’t mean, however, that writers don’t want to learn to build worlds, and while I’m by no means an expert, I do think about this stuff now and then. Below the cut, I’ve provided a really, really basic primer for how to start thinking about building an Earth-like world with a cohesive climate and different biomes. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide, and I’m intentionally leaving out some of the gritty details on (for example) rock morphology, magnetic vs. geographic poles, and desertification because that’s advanced-level stuff. I am also choosing to avoid addressing the advanced-level stuff surrounding a) non-Earth-like worlds and star systems, b) major global climate shifts a la glacial ages, c) unusual weather events like hurricanes and rogue waves, and d) wizards and pilots with weather-changing powers. All of these things, however, are cool and deserve further research.
The unremittingly fabulous Aria Heller has drawn me this AMAZING portrait of Erlen; I really can’t get over the look in his eyes or the texture of the skin and hair and clothes — and the buttons, let me tell you all about these buttons. I’m just flabbergasted at how perfectly this captures his character.
I’m a bit new to writing reviews, so bear with me if I neglect to observe the conventions of the book-reviewers’ trade; in the interest of proper disclosure, I should note that although Broken was published by Candlemark & Gleam, my own publisher, I bought the book myself and was neither asked to review it nor compensated for writing a review.
Susan Jane Bigelow’s Broken is a work of future-Earth science fiction, focusing on two protagonists: Broken, the former Extrahuman (superhero) who has lost her cause and many of her powers, and Michael Forward, the precognitive boy who must save a future leader of the human race. Both Broken and Michael are incapable of seeing a future for themselves — Broken is the story of how they square with that awareness of their finitude. In the process, both learn the many shapes that love and sacrifice can take, and both decide what they want their lives (and, implicitly, their deaths) to mean for others.
If you know anything about my narrative themes, you’ll recognize immediately that this story was designed to appeal to readers like me. I’m an absolute sucker for existential stories about what human life means as we live with an awareness of death, and I melt at novels that show human kindness in the face of pride, fear, and hatred.
Most readers, though, have trouble enjoying a book on theme alone, and so I’d like to discuss what makes this book not only resonant but also technically adept. Bigelow’s prose is very lucid, only seldom drawing attention to itself — but every now and then, I’ll stumble across a turn of phrase that positively gleams. Her characters are not only plausible but sympathetic, and even the most caricatured characters only grow more believable as the story progresses. While my plot summary gives short shrift to Monica, I found her character absolutely indispensable; more than Broken with her memories of flight and Michael with his dreams of his people’s future, Monica’s uncertainty and fear helped to ground my readerly experience of the narrative. She draws out the best in Broken and Michael — and in herself — as she learns to be brave in the face of a world that takes away all that she loves, and she does it from a position of faith that’s never easy or simple for her to maintain. While at first I was slightly skeptical as to the emotional depth of Broken and Michael, separately or as a team, Monica brought out unsounded depths in both of them that testified to Bigelow’s skill with characterization.
Bigelow has also built a very plausible global state, taking into consideration not only how human politics would change in response to future wars but also how these experiences would shape the geography of New York City and New England. When she wrote of physical spaces, of houses and libraries and roadways, I could see the scars of war and poverty on the infrastructure. Among these landscapes, American radicals and reactionaries seek a return to American statehood or a destruction of the global government — and at times, they find themselves either crossing or taking refuge behind old lines of prejudice. In addition to the shifting geopolitics of Earth, though, humans have adapted to relatively recent contact with alien races and expansion to new planets. Here, Bigelow is attentive to the human race’s capacity for adoration and destruction; scholars study their extraterrestrial neighbors and idealists attempt to imitate their life-styles, while in the capital nonhumans are lynched in the streets. Among humans, too, the emergence of “Extrahumans” inspires the same responses of awe and fear. The Extrahumans develop a fan following and a line of promotional merchandise … and an unswerving mission to hunt down all humans with more-than-human powers, for purposes never entirely clear to the members of the Extrahuman Union. Bigelow’s future-Earth culture is thick, in an anthropological sense; it’s not only cleverly built on the superficial level, it’s also clearly layered with generations of plausible change from our own time. It’s a world that has changed and grown, and although Michael is convinced throughout the novel that his charge will be the world’s salvation or its ruin, Bigelow makes absolutely clear: even in the worst-case scenario, this Earth will go on. It’s truly inspiring worldbuilding — I want to read histories of this world.
As trite as it is to say, Broken put me through my emotional paces; I laughed, I cried, I raged, and above all I hoped. I would highly recommend this book.
You can buy Broken here.
Today, the print copy of Erekos is available to buy! As you can imagine, I’m utterly delighted — so delighted, in fact, that I’m going to give away one printed Erekos poster to a commenter. A very small copy is below the jump, with assorted witterings about art style and early drafts to go with it.
There are better ways to start a post than with V.S. Naipaul, perhaps, but few that give better context for my concerns on authorship and gender. Our names have a pleasing symmetry, his “V.S.” and my “A.M.” falling neatly together. His name, though, concludes with “-paul” — that archetypical church-father, that Beatle or that Pope. My own name has the Finnish -la suffix, like power metal legend Tuomo Lassila‘s name. Like the suffix in Tuonela, the land of the dead, and the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland that tells of the land of heroes. It ends with an -a, which Romance languages have trained western readers to gender female.
In retrospect, I ought to have recognized it as inevitable that readers (and, just as saliently, reviewers) would interpret “A.M. Tuomala” as a female person. Most readers, trained on Spanish and Italian and French, had no other linguistic context for the name; perhaps an avid football aficionado might think of Jani Tuomala, or a Finn would recognize the name as his own or his neighbor’s, but beyond that familiarity with Finnish, who would know? (My grandmother used to tell me stories about how people would pronounce her name correctly, although it was difficult to spell, “Except they’d pronounce it too-MA-la instead of TOO-ma-la, like it was a Spanish name.”) It might be a modifier for a quarrelsome daughter: “hija tuomala,” that ill-behaved girlchild.
I write stories about women, too; I mustn’t forget that. Because only women write about women; men are interesting to everyone, but women are only interesting for women.
As a person who doesn’t identify as gendered, part of my deep uneasiness with this gendering of my author-self is very personal. I see reviewers referring to “her writing,” and I experience a disconnect — “Who is she? What troublesome woman has made my writing her own?”
I have to acknowledge, though, that part of my uneasiness comes from the same place as V.S. Naipaul’s contemptuous pronouncement that no female writer in history could match him. It comes from the same place from which Smurfette comes, that place that anxiously reminds me that women must always be only women and that by adopting a female identity I sign away my right to be the helper or the fixer or the tremulous one or the gutsy one or the engineer.
Well, I’ll have none of that.
I can spend the rest of my life fighting for recognition of a genderqueer identity and not account it time ill-spent. I can fight to convince reviewers to call me sie or xie or zie, to speak of hir writing or zir writing, to create a space in my language for a gender that is neither male nor female but instead both or either or neither, and I would not account that time ill-spent. What I may do inadvertently, though, is spend the rest of my life fighting against the recognition of a female identity, and I cannot brook that.
If A.M. Tuomala is to be identified as a woman, I want her to be that troublesome woman, that ill-behaved girlchild. I want her to be a person in her own right, complex and difficult and impossible to condense into an archetype of femininity — a woman who makes myths of a place of heroes, who are men and women and neither.