Sunday, July 29, 2012

Conventions and shortcuts

I finally went to see the latest Batman movie, and mostly liked it. It was way too long and noisy, and could easily have been split into two movies, but still, it was okay. I found myself analyzing it, on several levels. As a writer I noticed the various conventions used to establish location, time, and genre. It is obiously set in a  modern New York City, There were establishing shots of the City skyline, and of various landmarks. There were shots of grimy streets, elaborate mansions, and sleek, modernistic boardrooms. There were the standard stock characters, the Irish Cops, the Eastern European Mercenaries, and the English butler (Michael Caine alone was worth the price of admission) All to set the background for the type of story it would be.
It all got me to thinking.
In writing we use standard conventions to set the time and place for our stories. These are assumed to be present in the minds of the reader, easily recognized by everyone. If a story is set in Ancient Rome there will be Legionaires, Senators in togas, seductive maidens in diaphanous stola, gladiators and slaves, all set against a background of the Colliseum, the forum, and villas with marble columns. A story set in the European Middle Ages will feature mounted knights in armor,  stone castles, monks, lords and ladies, jugglers and jesters.
Stories set in the modern era will include familiar landmarks and skylines. If set in my home city, San Francisco, there will be cable cars climbing hills, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Tower, Chinatown, and colorful Victorian houses. Depending on the era there will be hardboiled detectives prowling fog-shrouded streets, Beatniks, hippies, or yuppies.
Such stock settings and characters save time and make it easy for the reader to slide into the story with minimal exposition.
But they can also be traps. By selecting easily recognized characteristics and bringing them to the forefront we present an unrealistic portrait of reality. We ignore all else, often to the detriment of an accurate, well-rounded picture. San Francisco is so much more that the standard images shown to the rest of the world by Hollywood and the tourist industry. There are all the ethnic neighborhoods, with their own restaurants, bookstores, and coffee or tea shops. Italian, Russian, Serbian, Vietnamese, Korean,  and Japanese. There are bookstores, and art galleries, Golden Gate Park,  and The Beach House Chalet. Those of you who live in other well-known cities can doubtless contribute more examples.
My stories of Lin Mei and Biao Mei are set during the Tang Dynasty in China. Most people, when they think of China, think of Hollywood China, with pagodas, lavish palaces, eunuchs, high-flying warriors with slashing, razor-edged swords, lovely warrior-maidens in silk robes, Mandarins in heavy brocade silk robes, and some serious costume-porn.
Tang China was not like that. While sharing some attributes with later eras, it was unique and interesting in ways not known by most people. At that time China was at a height of power and glory, the most powerful empire on Earth. It was cosmopolitan, with Japanese, Koreans, Persians, Arabs, and Indians all present, with their own neighborhoods, along with many other ethnic groups. Trade goods from as far away as Europe were to be found in the markets and state warehouses.
Abroad Tang armies marched as far west as Herat, in modern-day western Afghanistan, They clashed with Tibet, (called Tifun at that time, a war-like and predatory barbarian empire), the Turks, the Arabs, and the nomads of the steppes.
At home it was not like most people today envision it. For one thing the language was different, being more like Burman or Tibetan. China is divided into regions, the most important being North and South. The North, where Lin Mei and Biao Mei come from, had a strong Turkish influence, with dress, food, and customs markedly different from the South. It had a barbarian tinge to it.
The stories are set in the Far West, in what are now called Turkestan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan, as well as Tibet.
Today the land is arid, Moslem, and mainly Turkic. Then it was peopled mainly by Indo-Europeans, akin to modern day Iranians, of varied religions, but mainly Buddhist, with a strong Greek culteral overlay, thanks to the armies of Alexander the Great. Canals and Qanats (underground aqueducts) brought water down from the mountains, making the land fertile and rich. It was a land of lords and ladies, knights in mail armor on sturdy horses, merchants and trade. A time and place like none before or since.
To describe such a setting without taking up too much time in exposition and description requires using a few well-placed descriptive sentences. Most authors are familiar with that.
But the same can be said of any other setting. For example, most western fantasy stories are set in a medieval European setting as described above. But anyone familiar with European history will tell you it was much more complex, with kingdoms and lands that have since vanished. Most of modern Europe did not exist prior to the Renaissance, or even later. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example, spread across half of Europe at one time, and their armies campaigned against Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Huns. It was the famous Winged Hussars (one of the most colorful armies ever) that lifted the siege of Vienna.
The Empire of Aragon covered much of the Mediterranean, and played a vital role in history. Burgundy was a series of states, kingdoms, and duchys that played a crucial role in making modern Europe.
And Japan was much more that the generic lords, ladies and samurai depicted in popular stories.
A closer look at real historical lands and times will yield a plethora of potential settings and backgrounds for stories, and give the readers a greater selection of stories.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My Favorite Authors, part 1 of ...

Before I begin, some news. My story collection The Temple Cats will be free on Kindle on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. At the end of the month it will no longer be exclusive to Kindle and we can do a Nook version.
Now to the Blog. I'm new to this, so I think I'll start with my favorite authors. So many! As you can see from my books read list, I have a wide variety of interests. And I read a lot. I left out the soup can labels because they don't have ISBNs. As far as fiction goes, I have strong inclination towards Science Fiction and Fantasy, Mystery, and Spy Fiction. As a young person I spent a LOT of time in libraries and used book stores. Many treasures did I find therein.
First the classics:
  • Jules Verne. Who has not read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? I have the Ron Miller translation (1987) by Unicorn Press, with Ron Miller's illustrations and technical drawings. This version is closer to the original French version, and I feel, more true to Verne's vision than any other. I heartily recommend all his other works as well. Verne blazed trails well-trod by many others since.
  • H.G. Wells. I first read The Time Machine one cold winter evening up in my room with the rain beating against my window and a mug of hot apple cider by my bed. It made that much of an impression on me that I remember every detail of my surroundings. The true relationship of the Eloi and the Morlocks left my neck hairs standing on end. His other works are just as good.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs. While some would disagree, I regard the Tarzan books as Science-Fiction. Africa then was Unknown Lands (Some would say it still is.) where anything could happen. Of all of the stories, Tarzan and the Ant Men is my All-Time Fave of the Tarzan stories. I liked some of the Barsoom stories too, but the Tarzan stories are my preference.
  • Harold Lamb. Not too well known these days. I found a collection of his stories, The Curved Saber, in the library when I was in college, and read it in one weekend. I now own a copy of that edition. It contains most of the Khlit the Cossack stories. Set at the end of the 16th century they are the adventures of one of the most interesting chracters I've run across in fiction. A Cossack who is deemed too old to ride with the other Cossacks, Khlit rides off on his own in search of adventure. His travels take him to Persia, India, Tibet, China, much of Central Asia, and finally back to Russia. He ages along the way, relying on his wits more and more, until at the end he has relinquished his saber to his son and is content to sit in camp, drink corn whisky, and plot strategy. The stories take place in the lands I set the Temple cats stories in, so obviously there was an influence.
  • C.L. Moore. If you have not read Jirel of Joiry, shame on you. I have Black God's Shadow, a story collection, published by Donald M. Grant in 1977, and illustrated by Alicia Austin. A treasure. Written in the thirties, the stories are classics. Jirel is a true warrior woman, independent of any man. Although her adventures take her to Hell and back (literally!) she lacks any supernatural powers (unless you count a fiery temper) relying only on her sword and warrior skills.
  • Robert van Gulik. I read all of the Judge Dee stories in school. Loved them. Not my first look into the Orient, but an important one. I have the Dover edition, published in 1976, and have read it many times.
  • James P. Marquand. I found the Mr. Moto stories in the library and read them all. Written from the thirties to the fifties, they survive quite well despite the stereotypes common to the time. I've seen some of the movies made from the stories, and despite my liking for Peter Lorre, I do not recommend them. The books are another matter. If you can find them, read them.
  • Cordwainer Smith. Another writer of the golden age not too well known these days. His real name was Paul Linebarger, and his life story rivals most fiction. Army officer, spy, diplomat, writer, and psy warfare expert. He literally wrote the manual on psy warfare for the US Army, and it remains the definitive work. He wrote mainstream novels under other names. One of them, Atomsk, is a classic. A spy thriller with psy warfare as the gimmick, it was way ahead of its time. His science-fiction stories are classics, and strange. They have been collected in The Rediscovery of Man by NESFA Press. He was heavily influenced by Chinese literature, and it shows. Try reading some of them aloud to see what I mean. The Ballad of lost C'mell, The Game of Rat and Dragon, Scanners Live In Vain, and The Burning of the Brain are just a few. The last is one of the scariest stories I have ever read. I read it late one night and stayed up until dawn.
Slightly more modern:
  • Peter O'Donnell. The Modesty Blaise stories. Written from 1965 to 1996 they started as a comic strip, then branched out into novels and short stories. There was a terrible movie made, which is interesting, if you like sixties camp. I first read all the novels, before recently discovering the comics. Many people disparage the comic strip format, but some of the best writing has been in that form. I heartily recommend the novels. Many say Modesty is James Bond with boobs. Not so! If you read what Peter O'Donnell has to say about how he came to create Modesty, including the real-life inspiration, you'll see what I mean. To begin with, Modesty is no spy. With Willie Garvin, with whom she has a strong, platonic bond, she is her own woman, and works for no one. She may sometimes take on "capers" for MI6, but more often she and Willie take on bad guys on their own. I read all the novels and liked them all, but I, Lucifer stands out. She is not to everyone's taste, but I liked her.
  • Andre Norton. What can I say? It is one of the high points of my life that I met her once, and she was a delightful and charming lady. I loved her Time Trader stories, as well as many others, but it is Beast Master that has pride of place on my bookshelf. Hosteen Storm, the Navaho veteran of a devastated Terra's armed forces, is a compelling character. The story and the sequel, Lord of Thunder, follow his quest for vengeance on an arid world much like his home in the American Southwest. I loved his team of animal companions. He made Meerkats cool long before Disney heard of them.
  • Madeline L'Engle. I was fortunate enough to meet her once. Another fantastic lady. Her Wrinkle in Time is a must-read.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley. I first read The Colors of Space. Then I was introduced to her Darkover stories and was hooked. I prefer Stormqueen and Hawkmistress to her other works, finding the Ages of Chaos more interesting than that which came after. But I loved the Free Amazons. Highly recommend all her works. And of course there is Mists Of Avalon.
  • C.J. Cherryh. A wonderful lady and a great writer. Downbelow Station, Merchanter's Luck, Tri-Point, Forty Thousand In Gehenna, Serpent's reach, Cuckoo's Egg, and of course, the Foreigner series, all sit on my shelves, along with others.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold. Who cannot love Miles Vorkossigan? My fave is Cetaganda, but the rest are good too.
  • James Schmitz. His stories of the Hub are fantastic. The Hub is one of the most interesting settings in Science Fiction, almost a character in its own right. And of course there are Telzey Amberdon, Trigger Argee, Niles Etland (and her talking otters), Danestar Gems, Pilch, Quillan, and all the others. Not all his stories are set in the Hub. Harold Gage appears in The Custodians, a non-Hub story, and one of my favorite Schmitz stories. Baen Books has reissued the Schmitz stories, and I heartily recommend them. Also, The Witches of Karres, a fun romp.
  • Elizabeth Lynn. Writes short stories and novels. Her shorts stories are all good, but The Woman Who Loved the Moon stands out. Of her novels, The Watchtower, The Dancers of Arun, and The Northern Girl are my favorites. The background culture of the novels is a major character, and in the stories we see it born, in its heyday, and then as it starts to decline. Terrific writer and a very nice lady.
  • Max Allen Collins. Most likely you've never heard of him. Did a comic strip: Ms. Tree. As I said before, many people disparage the format, but a lot of good writing is found there. Ms. Tree is a hard-boiled detective who sees her husband murdered on her wedding night, and her vendetta rampage is at the core of her career. But it's not that simple. The stories deal with topics not normally covered in any format. First of all there are real-life consequences. She kills people and is arrested and intitutionalized and is used in drug-testing experiments. When she gets out and returns to her career she has to deal with date-rape, tracks down a killer while pregnant, and has run-ins with devil worshippers, and teen-age porn moguls, among others. The stories deal with incest, after-life experiences, betrayal, and serious questions of family loyalty. (What do you do when your adopted son is going to marry into the crime family that killed your husband?) Like Modesty Blaise, not to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the stories.
  • Steve Gallacci. Another comic series. I'm not into Furry Fandom, but I loved the Erma Felna stories. They are very good science-fiction. It's all there. Mysterious origins, hi-tech, Psy-war, tech-specs, Socio-political warfare, discussions on philosophy, politics, strategy, and a cast of interesting characters, including Erma Felna, a cat commando. What more could you want?
  • Shirow Masamune. Ghost in the Shell. A series of comics, TV anime series, and some anime movies, centering around Major Motoko Kusanagi, a mysterious cyborg who leads Section Nine, a secretive unit of the Japanese National Police in a futuristic Japan. In a world where people have cybernetic brains, identity theft takes on a whole new meaning. The stories have good plots, interesting situations, and deal with questions of identity, purpose, and social interactions. There are a lot of philosophical discussions, and the English translations can leave something to be desired, but I loved the stories. It is also an interesting look into how others view the world. In our culture being a individualist is considered good, but Motoko and her men must deal with a terrorist group called the Individualist Eleven. And of course there is Appleseed and the sequel, Appleseed Ex Machina. One of the reasons I like anime and manga, and their equivalents in other cultures, is that you can learn more about a culture from the popular culture than from any number of scholarly tomes.
That's all for now. See you next week.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just starting my blog, my first ever. I'm mostly known for a series of stories about a young girl, Lin Mei, her brother Biao Mei, and a pair of telepathic cats, Shadow and Twilight, set in the early years of Tang Dynasty China, approximately 620 to 650. There have been six so far, the latest will be published in November 2012. At the moment I am collecting and expanding them, along with a lot of additional material, into a book. I'll keep you posted. I plan to explore various topics in these blogs, from history, ancient technology, influences on my writing, and general interests of mine.
As you may have read on other sites, I hang out at the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco (which I heartily recommend, even if you don't have an interest in things Asian), explore sushi bars,  collect Asian art, have an interest in Zen Archery, Asian swords and swordsmanship (Japanese and Chinese), and assorted other Asian arts and crafts. It does keep me busy.
I am interested in more than just the past. I read Science fiction, have a shelf load of books about technology and science, and watch as many of the History and Discover Channel specials as I can find time for. A guilty pleasure is the Deadliest Warrior series, on Spike TV, available on-line now that the series has aired its last show. The tests of ancient and modern weapons are good research, if a bit over the top sometimes.
At present I do not have any cats, although I have in the past, along with several dogs, a hamster, two tarantulas, and four octopuses and two squids. (Long story, don't ask.). I have a notepad filled with notes that I may someday turn into a current-day spy/crime novel. Depends on how my current projects turn out.
Enough for today. See you soon!