A few of us were talking about books we had enjoyed this year as recommendation for Christmas. Here are a few of mine.
Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, Michael Marshall Smith
I loved MMS’s early work and his ‘Straw Dogs’ series, then lost contact with his work. This turned out to be a great place to resume.
Hannah Green is a clever, funny, supernatural adventure about time, the Devil, and bad people doing bad things. Laugh out loud moments, an easy style, and strange and dangerous encounters. A perfect winter night read.
Nine Lives, William Dalrymple
Dalrymple is my favourite travel writer/historian at the moment, and this is one of his best books. Subtitled ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’, WD helps us understand what it is to be a Jain nun, a Buddhist monk, a story-teller, A Sufi, and more.
Some of these ways of life endure, some, like the 20+ generation statue-maker and last in his family line, he catches at the very end of their times. Dalrymple writes with a transparent style, filled with warmth and compassion. Not many travel writers can make me cry.
Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner
Back in print after forty years, this fine collection of stories from the courts of Elfindom are lyrical, witty, cruel, and charming.
As anyone who truly understand the fey knows, they might not be nice, but they can be funny. Essential and pleasurable reading for anyone who enjoys gently grotesque stories.
It occurred to me that the one great challenge of world-building is that you are, in fact, building a world. What to put in? What to leave out?
I’ve recently been reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. In it he writes:
“Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audience what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.”
That extrapolates well to world building. World-building is not a thing in itself, it is there to support your storytelling. You are creating the semblance of a world not the actuality. All that is required are the specifics that will support the story you are telling in all its aspects. Not so detailed that the narrative and characters disappear, not so flimsy you feel you could walk up to the scenery and bang your hand on the canvas backdrop.
One way to think about your world building is to treat it like the photographs, souvenirs, and memories of a trip to a place only you have visited – the striking moments, places, items, inhabitants, ways of life, creatures and landscapes, and sensations that stay with you when you have left. The things you absolutely have to tell everyone about when you return home. The things that will fire their imaginations and make them want to go there too.
I recently stalled myself writing a connecting scene between two places – Knights Hall, where my alien city guardians live, and High House, the home of the ruling elite deep in my underground city. How was I going to get my characters from the first place to the second? Which route would they take? What would they see, do, say, and feel?
With this particular story I have needed to imagine an entire world: a planet and ecology, cities and technology, a cultural history and a way of life that has stretched unbroken for thousands of years. With this scene it all welled up in my mind and became too much. There was so much to think about I didn’t know where to begin. And for a while I actually couldn’t.
Which was no good at all.
I’ve learned to trust my subconscious when it stalls me. I take it as a message that I am heading in the wrong direction. Invariably it (or rather that other and in some ways smarter part of me) is right. So I did what I usually do and thought about whether or not I needed this scene at all and, if so, how big it needed to be.
In the end this is what I wrote:
“Vioneth led the way to High House along a secret way behind the upper warren. Lumens blinked into life as they went. The footing was level and paved, the curved walls whitewashed, yet everywhere there were signs of disuse and neglect. Paint peeled, water pooled in shallows and corners.”
I used just what I thought where the essential details. And I have now hopefully co-opted the imaginations of the reader to build on that description in their own minds. Readers have excellent imaginations.
With world building, as with so many things, less is usually more.
I love Jack Vance’s stories for their wit and imagination, and for his accomplished use of language. I’m not alone, he’s inspired a devoted readership*, significant critical praise, and some writers mimic his distinctive style.
Vance vividly describes worlds, cities, and dramatic encounters with great economy. Let’s examine one of my favourite examples of this from The Green Pearl, the second book in his brilliant Lyonesse trilogy, where good Prince Ailas fights the undefeated Ska.
“Again Ailas set up his ambush of archers and mounted knights in a copse beside the road. Presently the Ska contingent riding four abreast came into view: seasoned troops, confident but far from reckless. They wore conical black-enamelled steel helmets and shirts of chain mail, as well as greaves. They carried short lances, swords, chain-balls – the so-called ‘morning-stars’ – with bow and arrows in quivers at their saddlebows. As they came placidly along the road, thirty-five Troice knights charged from the copse and galloping downhill with lances levelled, struck into the rear third of the column. To cries of horror and shock the lances drove through chain mail and lifted the riders from their horses, to drop them in the dust beside the road.
Riding up the hill and reforming, they charged once more. From the copse poured arrows, each aimed with careful intent. The commander bawled orders to depart this place of death, and the column started off at full gallop. On the hillside four ropes were cut, allowing a great oak tree to topple across the road, and the Ska troops for a period lost their organization.
Finally, battling desperately, hand to hand, the Ska managed to collect in a small group. Three times Ailas called for surrender before pounding them again with his knights; three times the Ska absorbed the blows and reformed as best they could, and with stern faces hurled themselves upon their enemies.
There was to be no surrender; all would die on the sun-dappled road.”
What has happened here? A careful ambush, two groups of experienced warriors, implacable foes engaged in a brutal fight. In my mind’s eye I see the copse, the hill, the Ska in their armour. I feel the remorseless swing of the battle on the dusty road, the desperation and determination – and so much more.
I remember reading this passage for the first time. I turned the page, stopped reading, and went back and read it again. So much had happened in those four short paragraphs it was hard for me to absorb. The images and emotions he had created were overwhelmingly intense.
Later on I went back and tried to understand how he had done what he had done. What could I learn? Try it now for yourself – re-read the passage, then turn over the scene in your mind. Landscape, drama, and emotion, all you are now thinking about was summoned by just 251 words.
I’m not a great fan of deconstructive criticism. It seems to me you either risk taking the work apart so deeply it turns to smoke and blows away, or you read intent into the process that never existed. Without the author input – and Vance was very reluctant to talk about his works – all you have is opinion and speculation. Even so, with this example you can look at the passage and see what Vance is doing – and not doing – and then think about why he wrote it that way.
These are some of the things I see:
Description: He describes the enemy Ska troops in detail, but not the Troice ambushers. He tells us how very well the enemy are equipped and that they are elite troops and nobody’s fools. On the other hand we know nothing about Ailas’s men’s equipment or quality. Good or bad, we do not know, and yet we are on their side. I can see how this creates additional tension as the ambush opens because we know their mettle has to match that of the Ska, but we don’t know in advance if it will.
Language: He uses very specific words and phrases. Paired words like copse and hill create landscape. Then there is another crank on tension’s ratchet when ‘came placidly’ is followed by ‘charged’ and then, ‘galloping’. There’s also a great use of the narrative power of three: three times the call to surrender, three times a desperate survival. ‘Battling desperately … a small group’ refuses surrender. Almost now my sympathies have changed towards the doomed but valiant Ska.
Structure: The paragraphs get shorter and shorter and each has a single job. The first sets the scene and unfurls the action. The second demonstrates the effectiveness of the trap. The third compares the doomed courage of the Ska with Ailas’s mercy. And the fourth is the outcome – “all would die on the sun-dappled road.“ Brief, tragic, and quite poetic.
It’s impossible for me to say how much of this was conscious intent or the instinctive skill of a master craftsman and storyteller. But the paragraph structure of this scene feels deliberate, and the selection of nouns, verbs and adverbs is careful and specific. I think this scene is a wonderful example of Vance’s controlled and accurate style, and there’s a great deal to think about and learn from these 251 words.
* Few writers can have fans prepared to re-issue their entire body of work, edited and restored as originally intended, an ‘author’s cut’ of their books. I count myself fortunate to have the six-volume condensed edition of this Vance Integral Edition, or VIE.
(This was originally posted in a slightly different form on the Milford SF Writers blog in May 2018.)
The weather for the past few weeks has been perfect for solar power – non-stop sunshine except for an overcast afternoon or so. Those clouds didn’t have much impact and performance has been as good as I could have hoped for.
If you need more evidence, here’s the weekly graph. There’s just the tiniest bit of grid draw – which I can explain – and apart from that it is life off-grid, day after day, week after week.
The reason for that grid draw, and the one fly in the ointment, is that the immersion heater failed and needed to be replaced.
When the Tesla Powerwall2 arrived I also had a Solic 200 unit from Earthwise installed. This diverts excess power from the solar cells to the immersion heater, and the advantage here is that I can turn off the gas boiler for hot water and so reduce mains gas use.
The problem was, the old immersion, unused for over ten years, gamely did its job for a couple of months then packed up. A quick replacement and we were back in business, but setting up caused a small draw from the grid.
For now the only fossil fuel used to run the house is for the oven.
This last graph shows the past month. The first week we were away on holiday, hence the lower house power demand.
It’s madly hot and the weather is set to continue like this for a while. So my next step is, now I can salve my conscience by running it for free off sunshine, is to get a small portable air-con unit.
There is a Way to Live Forever is an excellent title, and this new collection from Terry Grimwood contains some very good stories too. Sharp, controlled, concise stories, always with a human edge to the horrors.
I particularly liked “The Devils’ Eggs”, “Think Belsen”, and “There is a Way”. And “Journey to the Engine of the Earth” was really excellent, a highlight in my short story reading this year
Terry Grimwood creates deeply unsettling encounters in disturbed lives. Some stories are relatively straightforward horror, others edge into the fantastical, or the surreal, but never too far. All these pieces are driven by the needs of the characters in them. In on one case it is just a wish to be accepted in a size 0 obsessed society, in another simply to survive a night in a council estate.
Redemption and forgiveness, curiosity, an author’s desire for authenticity, the need to be a better person, and that passion closest to madness – love. There’s something for everyone here, a little bit about what it is to be human, and a great deal for this particular reader. I enjoyed this collection very much indeed.
“A group of Sapphically inclined female students who sensibly disliked the modern world and admired the philosophical works of René Guenon found each other.”
I was once fascinated by secretive societies, drawn by the lure of the apparently hermetic lore they possessed. I grew unconvinced, I’m even less convinced now. Although I was reading books as opposed to web sites (this was back in the days before the internet) that History is a good example of the writings I came across, with broken links, deeply obscure references, anonymous or pseudonymous quotes, unexplained unique words, and a slow slide into what seems to me, an increasingly incoherent narrative.
Like so many small organisations the Aristasians appear to have broken apart and reconstructed themselves more than once and then, apparently, faded from existence.
I ended up feeling a little sad. Here were a small group of people dissatisfied with the world they found who tried to create an ideal place to live that could accommodate their own needs and desires. I have much sympathy with that.
I don’t want to dwell on the wider diaspora of this group because I’m more interested in leaping into quantum physics, and virtual particles (of course).
Virtual particles are transient things but they are real (for a certain value of real). Various field effects and forces operate via the exchange of virtual particles and there’s one thing that struck me about them– the longer a virtual particle exists, the closer its characteristics come to those of actual particles.
I wondered if the Aristasians were a cultural equivalent of virtual particles, and that they were just one of hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small groups that have bubbled up into existence out of the quantum foam of human nature, called by some need, but then fade away.
These little groups are odd and idealistic, a mixture of practicality, quirks, and ideas, but then aren’t all societies and cultures like that? They might look a little strange from the outside, but then again so do all unfamiliar cultures.
If only they could have hung around long enough they might have become real.
 A possible Aristasian successor exists in The Daughters of Shining Harmony, though one part of this site is little more than ‘Buy My Book.’ A hoax, a dream, or am I just a cynical Tellurian curmudgeon? They do have a (virtual) tea room.
Writers all over the world talk about Imposter Syndrome*, that feeling your success is undeserved and that one day the world will collectively blink, take a good long look at you and realise you are some kind of fraud.
It’s something that affects people in many walks of life, creative or not. You would think it should be a simple thing to look at your own achievements and accept the success that years of experience, hard work, and learning, have brought. For many people it’s not always so. I’ll admit to being one of them. I don’t think my writing is good enough, I try with every piece I write to be a better writer. It’s the same with my leather-craft and, even though I can see the results and know I’m getting better, on some days I still feel like I’m an amateur.
I love our garden and creating the right conditions for helping things grow – to eat or for the pure pleasure of seeing them there. Gardening is also great for letting the mind wander where it will. This morning I was sweeping up leaves, cutting dead fronds off the Dicksonias, and getting the grass out around the bulbs that are just starting to show. As I was working it occurred to me that maybe this Imposter Experience* is not such a bad thing.
One thing I find useful during my ruminations is to turn things around: What if up was down, black was white, happy was sad? How does that make me feel about things? What, I wondered, if there was no such thing as Imposter Experience?
If I was content with everything I’d achieved wouldn’t I run the risk of becoming complacent, sit on my laurels, and stop trying to get better? Nobody knows everything. The experience of writing each story is different, long form or short. I’d be a real fool if I thought there was nothing left for me to learn, and that would be far worse.
I think this feeling of being some kind of imposter, while not being a very nice experience, is actually one of the things we should take strength from. That doubt shows that, while we might not be as good as we want to be, we acknowledge that fact and are trying to be better. And so we will be.
* We shouldn’t think of it as an illness or a syndrome. Pauline Clance, one of the clinical Psychologists who first wrote about it now believes it should be called Imposter Experience,
Where else can you spend a day and a half with friendly NASA scientists, and university researchers and professors talking about their work – and then ask them your SF-questions too?
Last year was brilliant. I blogged about it here. I am sure this year will be just as fascinating, inspiring, and informative. And it’s always good to meet new people as well as writer friends I’ve not seen for too long.
Here’s what David has announced so far:
We now have dates for Science for Fiction 2018!
They will be 4 and 5 July, starting after lunch on 4th, and all day on the 5th.
Cost will be £30 as before, though some funds are available to help those in need of support.
Registration is by email to me. I will be advertising this more broadly as we have a nice lecture theatre this year.
Please also let me know any subject requests and any dietary requirements.
David’s email is davecl (at) mac (dot) com.
I shall definitely be going again. I hope to see some of you there!
I’ve been waiting for a couple of days of consecutive sunny weather and finally they arrived. The news was as good as i hoped it would be. There are several ways to show this, so lets start with Graph 1, the full 24 hours for Saturday.
The graph shows mains draw in white, Solar generation in yellow and battery charge and discharge below and above the line. It was a beautiful clear and cold day, the Solar generation is almost a perfect curve. Mains draw fell to zero as the Solar took over, and stayed there except for some tiny blips throughout the day.
Graph 2 – Sun 25 Feb
Once the sun set the Powerwall took over, and ran and ran. There was still around 12% charge on Sunday morning, another clear day. Graph 2 shows the next day and does include mains draw, but there is virtually none. Graph 3 shows mains on its own, and it is tiny, only 0.2 kW from midnight to 4pm.
The Sunday charge ran through until Monday morning. By the then the weather had changed, and it’s now cloudy, cold, and snowing. Before that happened we were effectively off-grid for 48 hours.
Graph 3 – Sun 25 Feb. Mains only
That’s not all. Part of the installation was an additional switch to divert current to the hot water tank immersion when there was sufficient charge. We’re having our bathroom refitted, that fat spike in Graph two around 8:30 – to 9am is the immersion heater kicking in after a long hot bath, the first we’ve had for a few days. No gas was used to heat that water, just sunshine.
There are a couple of things I don’t understand: why there is that mini draw from the mains when the Powerwall is charged, and what the rules are for the immersion discharge. I’ll talk to the installers and report back. I’m not concerned, these two days have really proved the functionality of the system.
Having the Powerwall installed has made two things very obvious. First, just how much solar energy is available even on a short sunny winter day. And second, how much of that goes to waste with just a solar PV array.
Chart 1 – Friday
The days are slowly, slowly getting longer, and just four weeks after solstice there is a noticeable difference in generation. Last Friday was a day of clear blue skies from dawn to dusk, my 3.8kW solar PV peaked at 2.5kW generation, and by the end of the day the Powerwall had reached 50% charge starting from empty.
Chart 1 Shows PV generation (yellow) starting about 8am. Soon after grid draw (white) drops to zero and stays there for the rest of the day. (How excellent is that?) While the sun shines the PV runs the house and also charges the Powerwall (green). When the sun sets the Powerwall runs the house for the rest of the day.
That’s not the end of it because a 50% charge is enough to (almost) run the house through the night until the morning. I say almost because you can see four little blips between about 2am and 6am where there is a very small draw from the grid. The Powerwall will be at a very low charge state by then and I’ve seen before how discharge appears to gracefully decline rather than just stop.
I’m still not sure what those 1kW spikes are at night. I suspect the chest freezer but am not sure how to prove it.
That 50% charge very nearly carried the house through a full 24 hours. Had the next day been a sunny one that would have carried on and we’d have as near as dammit been off-grid in January. This being winter in England there’s been nothing but grey skies, sleet and rain since then, with very little PV generation.
Even so, I’m impressed. 50% is not quite enough, but 60% should do it. Give it another few weeks and cold clear February skies, maybe a 60% charge, and we should be there. It’s going to happen and I now believe it will be much sooner in the year than I first expected. A 100% charge is some way off yet, but when that happens I am excited to see how the other gadget I had installed along with the Powerwall behaves.