Sanderson 2016 (318R.1)

No, not a political campaign – a refresh of Brian Sanderson’s famous writing lectures at BYU, English 321. Here’s my playlist on Youtube for the original:

However, Sanderson just announced on his blog that there’s a new version, updating the material, and with more professional recording. The first episode just went live – English 318R, #1:

I am only about halfway through the original series and I have extensive notes that I want to put up online here. I am also greatly inspired by Auston’s and Jonathan’s examples. Watching Sanderson’s lectures break down the writing craft into what feels like more manageable pieces. These are essential viewing for anyone like me who has any aspiration to be a SF writer.

Sidewise in learning

Somebody – maybe Bradbury, maybe Heinlein, maybe John D. MacDonald – said that you need to write a million words before you’ve learned the craft. I’ve never kept count, but I wrote for forty years before I sold my first story to a pro market, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit the million mark somewhere. And if I did, about half those million words were alternate history.

History has fascinated me since I was a child, and the unknowable ifs of history – what might have happened if the past had played out differently – have appealed to my imagination for nearly as long. I was about ten years old when I read Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time, and from then on I was hooked. I read alternate history stories anywhere I could find them, and when I discovered an Internet discussion group on alternate history in 1995, I became a participant. I’ve played with historical what-ifs in one forum or another ever since.

The magic of alternate history, like that of all speculative fiction, is that it’s open to nearly anything. What if Spinoza had gone into exile in the Ottoman Empire after the Dutch rabbinate excommunicated him? What if the Malê Revolt in Brazil had gone a bit better – not much better, but a bit – leading to a Jacobin Islam taking root in West Africa? What if the early split between the Kingdom and Republic of Haiti had become permanent? What if the kenbut (local justice courts) of ancient Egypt had assumed power by default during one of the periods of collapse, leading to the formation of quasi-republics? What if the Iron Age Nok culture of Nigeria had developed steel, or if African rice had been domesticated in Mali before 3000 BC?

(And yes, in case you haven’t guessed, all of those are my scenarios.)

But while alternate history has been wonderful exercise for the imagination, have my half-million words of it helped to teach me the craft of writing? In some ways I’m not entirely sure. Bulletin-board alternate history is different from published alternate history, with intellectual rigor and historical plausibility prized above storytelling. There’s a reason why the scenarios explored on alternate-history forums are usually called “timelines” rather than stories or novels: their object is more to build a different world rather than to tell the stories of its people.

World-building is of course part of all speculative fiction, but on alternate history forums, it becomes the whole. Timelines often use more of the tropes of academic writing and popular history books than those of fiction, and the interactive nature of Internet forums turns them into something like seminars. There isn’t really an equivalent in published literature: Robert Sobel came close with For Want of a Nail, but that was a one-time tour de force that has never been, and possibly never should be, duplicated. For that matter, Sobel was an economic historian rather than a novelist by training, and while his writing was interesting to those of a historical bent, it violated most of the rules of good storytelling. I’d go so far as to say that bulletin-board alternate history is a different genre from the works of authors such as Turtledove or Stirling, and as such, it isn’t necessarily good training for literary writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t entirely bad training. World-building is important, and participation in an alternate history forum is a master class in how to do it right and (just as critically) how to do it wrong. Bad alternate history is wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which the author picks an event and then proceeds from unspoken premises to paint the map his or her favorite color. Good alternate history is all about discovering the premises: taking a pivotal event and applying principles of historical cause and effect both to posit how the event might turn out differently and project the long-term outcome. Good alternate history is more science fiction than fantasy, and requires the author to develop an understanding of the political, economic, social, intellectual and environmental factors that drive human development. The research that I’ve done for my bulletin-board scenarios has improved my general knowledge and sense of plausible world-building as well as my knowledge of the specific cultures and personalities that have found their way into my writing.

And even in bulletin-board alternate history, there’s plenty of room for storytelling. As I became more confident in writing timelines, I shifted more and more from the macroscale to the microscale, and began focusing on one-shot vignettes and the story arcs of historical characters. Of the works linked above, the Haitian one consists entirely of short stories (after some preliminary discussion) and I’m quite proud of a couple of them. Most of the others also intersperse short fiction with the general historical discussion: Malê Rising even includes literary selections “written” by authors living in the alternate universe, and aside from being good exercise in writing from different voices, one of those selections led directly to my first professionally-published story.

So, yes, playing with history is part of my million words – not to mention that it’s been a lot of fun, and fun, at least, is never wasted.

Barbie Star Trek 50th Anniversary action figures: Kirk, Spock and Uhura

These are NOT dolls!

spockkirkuhura

They are “action figures”. And they are awesome. I can understand why they omitted Bones in favor of Uhura, and I approve, but hopefully the Trinity will be completed eventually. These are available from Amazon for pre-order now (Kirk, Spock, Uhura).

Welcome to my worlds

Let me introduce myself: I’m Jonathan Edelstein, a long-time Internet friend of Aziz. I live in Queens, I’m married with no children but one cat, and I’m about halfway through my forties. I practice law, and hope someday to get it right.

Union, Travail, Justice

I’ve been writing recreationally since I was four years old – my “first novel,” complete with illustrations, was about a cat who drove a truck, and I still have it somewhere in the closet of my spare room. Last year, I broke into the pro scene with First Do No Harm, a short story published at Strange Horizons, and The Shark God’s Child and The Starsmith will appear soon in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Escape Pod. Through the good offices of Sealion Press, I’ve also published Union, Travail, Justice, an 8000-word alternate history story set in a Gabon that voted against independence in 1958; Luke didn’t care for it, but you might.

First Do No Harm takes place 30,000 years from now in a society that is emerging from a dark age, and is about medical ethics and the conflict between scholastic and scientific approaches to knowledge. Various reviewers have characterized the story’s future as too much like the past and not enough like the past; I’ll leave it to you whether it’s too hot, too cold or, as other reviewers thought, just right. What I’d like to discuss instead is the cultural setting.

Mutanda, the world of First Do No Harm (and the forthcoming Starsmith), has a language and society that are adapted from those of the Lamba ethnic group of the Zambian Copperbelt. The Lamba cosmology is, in some ways, made for science fiction, particularly in its concept of the awantu. The awantu maintain the sun, moon and stars – a cosmic working class, if you will – but the remarkable thing about them is that they’re people, with the “ntu” root that means “person” in almost all Bantu languages, and not gods or spirit creatures. They are people of another creation from humans, but they’re conceived as natural beings: in science fiction terms, as aliens.

The awantu play only a background role in First Do No Harm, but many of the kinship customs, words and names shown in the story are also adapted from the Lamba. Of course, no culture is likely to remain pure over 30,000 years, so there are elements drawn from other places: the clan structure owes a great deal to Gabon, the religion to the Yoruba, the clothing to several parts of West Africa, and if you’ve been to Lagos, then Chambishi Port might be a bit familiar. When The Starsmith comes out, you’ll see some Mandé and Shona influence, and if I sell other stories in the same universe, there will be echoes of other places, as well as cultural traits that appear nowhere on earth. And The Shark God’s Child, a fantasy, is set in an Austronesian-based culture that combines elements of Melanesia, Micronesia, Borneo and Madagascar.

Anyway, by now, you’ve probably figured out that I enjoy world-building and writing from the point of view of other cultures. I plead guilty as charged – Africa and the Pacific have been interests of mine for more than a quarter-century, I’ve published professionally on issues of Melanesian law, and I’ve been an honorary member of a Yoruba family for some years. I’m also a white Jewish guy from Queens, which means that when I discuss my stories, I sometimes end up in a conversation about cultural appropriation.

I hate the term “cultural appropriation,” because it conceives of culture as property and also as something that has clear boundaries. In fact, cultures blend into each other, and they have begged, borrowed and stolen from each other for as long as humans have been recognizably human. People and nations have migrated, traded and fought since immemorial times, and as they’ve done so, they’ve adapted and repurposed others’ cultural artifacts. The story of Noah’s Ark came from Gilgamesh; Christmas is Saturnalia with the serial numbers filed off; the stories of Indra, Zeus and Thor are sometimes uncannily familiar. Appropriation and adaptation is how cultures are made.

But however much I dislike the term, I recognize the thing. Culture may not be property but it is patrimony, and parts of it are sacred. Cultural artifacts aren’t meant to be superficial decorations, and they aren’t meant to be used offhandedly as window dressing or, worse, portrayed with a false claim of authenticity. The recent controversy about J.K. Rowling’s expansion of the Harry Potter universe, in which she placed the African magic academy Uagadou (a West African name used for the ancient Ghana empire and Burkina Faso’s capital city) in Uganda and decided that the skinwalkers of Navajo myth were in fact evil wizards, comes to mind, but there have been others.

So, when I build my worlds, I realize I need to walk a fine line and to draw from others’ stories without claiming to tell those stories for them. My overriding concern is to treat my source material with respect: to research thoroughly, to consult with people from the source culture (and let them know what I’m doing) whenever possible, to listen if anyone from that culture has issues with my portrayal, and to treat cultures as something three-dimensional and integral parts of the story rather than decorations. I try to take lessons from those who have gone before me. Above all, I try to acknowledge that I’m a tourist in other cultures and that I have an obligation, as any tourist would, not to litter the place and write my name on the walls.

Neil Gaiman famously said that anyone offended by the term “political correctness” should simply replace it with “treating other people with respect,” as in “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!” Maybe the cultural appropriation debate might best be viewed the same way. If I can achieve “treating other people with respect gone mad,” then maybe I’m doing something right, and I’m always grateful for any help in getting there.

Stargazing at Sandstone Peak

I went stargazing last night at Sandstone Peak in Malibu with my friend Huzaifa – here are some of the post-processed long-exposure shots he took:

Huzaifa has two scopes, and a local named Bob showed up with his own rig. All together, we viewed Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons and bands, and Mars, not to mention a few Messier globular clusters, an open cluster in Hercules, and Berenice’s Comb.

Here’s the location – the ocean was due south, and offered the darkest skies, though we left around midnight, well before the bulk of the Milky Way rose. The western sky was a slightly contaminated by glow from Oxnard. Due east was pretty poor due to light from Thousand Oaks and the Valley beyond. The bulk of Los Angeles proper was southeast and too far away to really interfere, however. For a site only 30 min from home, this was an absolutely superb location, especially for the southeastern sky. See: