My daughters Eleanore and Genevieve dressed as the fairies Summer and Fall.
As some of you may or may not know, my wife Mary is a theatrical costumer and costume hobbyist (although "fanatic" might be a more appropriate term), and she enjoyed sewing costumes for our four children. In this picture, my two youngest daughters are dressed as the fairies from The Warlock Is Missing, Eleanore as Summer and Genevieve as Fall... but there's an interesting story behind that. It's actually the other way around.
The Summer Fairy and Fall Fairy costumes stared life as Halloween costumes my wife made for my daughters (actually, the Fall Fairy was originally a Robin Hood costume for my son, but that's a different story). During the 1980s, I attended several SFF conventions a year, often dragging my wife and children with me. One of the things my children enjoyed, however, was getting to dress up in hall costumes at conventions—it was like having Halloween several times a year!
In 1983, my family and I attended Lastcon 3 (or Lastcon T'ree, as they called it) in Albany, New York, and my two youngest daughters roamed the halls in their fairy costumes. A fellow costume hobbyist, admiring the fairy costumes, suggested to my wife that they should enter the Masquerade costume competition. Well, Mary had never entered a Masquerade before and was excited to get the invitation, so she registered for it.
Then, just before the Masquerade began, with my daughters already in costume and makeup, Mary was shocked to discover that this was a Recreation Masquerade—in other words, all costumes had to be recreations of outfits in SFF movies, television, comics, or books. The two fairy costumes, however, were not, so they were on the verge of being disqualified. With my daughters confused and my wife near tears, I proposed a solution: I offered to write these two fairies into my next book. Thankfully, the Masquerade officials were lenient and allowed it.
So you see, it wasn't so much that my daughters were dressed as the fairy characters Summer and Fall from The Warlock Is Missing. Rather, the characters in the novel were based on them. In fact, I incorporated their physical appearance and personalities into the fairy characters, and even threw in a little undertone of sibling rivalry. Hey, it was fun!
And the outcome of the Masquerade? My wife won her first prize, the award for Cutest Fairies (a category I'm fairly sure the judges made up just for my daughters), and shortly after that this photo was taken.
But what, you may ask, brings this old story to mind over thirty years later? Well, it ends where it began: on Halloween. My daughter Genevieve is a grown woman now with three children of her own. Somehow, for some reason, she kept her Fall Fairy costume all these years. And this last Halloween, in 2015, Genevieve texted me this photo of my granddaughter Grace in her Halloween costume.
Grace, after seeing the photo of her mom dressed as the Fall Fairy, then finding that her mother she still had the costume, and discovering to her delight that it fit her, Grace decided to dress as the Fall Fairy for Halloween.
Well, technically, she had three different costumes for Halloween, and wore a different one to each event. My wife would approve. Clearly, Grace has inherited some of Mary's genes.
So things have come full circle, and the costume has become a family heirloom. I doubt I'll live to see it passed on to the third generation... but I can share the story with you.
I looked up from my computer one day and discovered, via this website, that there was a debate about sexism going on in the SFWA Bulletin (issue #202). I read the recent Malzberg/Resnik exchanges and a few of the replies and found that they had generated more heat than light, as such arguments seem to do. Nonetheless, the whole discussion did raise a few points and gave me an occasion to put them into essay form.
One point Malzberg and Resnik make quite clearly is the danger of censorship, something of which all writers must constantly be aware, especially because it can creep in without our knowing it. This document I’m writing right now is a good example—I’m responding to someone else’s statement, and the content of theirs will determine the content of mine, if I’m not careful.
So self-censorship is perhaps the most insidious—because it’s the most necessary. After all, if I’m going to submit a statement for publication, I want to make sure it’s something I really believe, not just a reaction to someone else’s words. I may have fallen into that trap a few times, specifically because I try to avoid it.
I’m very much aware of the dangers of promulgating gender stereotypes, so in designing my characters, I deliberately subvert stereotypes by reversing them. Of the female heroines in books and movies, how many are young and beautiful? Most of them—just look at any Disney princess. Now, let’s stop and think about it from the other direction. How many female villains are there? How many of them use weapons? And if there are female villains, how many tend to be ugly, like the sea witch in Disney’s Little Mermaid, or beautiful and sexy like most women supervillains in comic books—temptresses and seductresses a Black Widow in human form? Now, how to subvert those stereotypes.
More importantly, since becoming father of a son and two daughters (the third was not yet born at the time), I had to deal with the contrasting problem of trying to raise a boy to be a man and girls to be women, when the traditional gender roles and associated characteristics of both had suddenly come very much into question.
So, odd though it may seem, I had to begin by figuring out what those gender roles and characteristics were. This is somewhat like a politician extolling family values without being able to give us a list of what exactly they are.
More to the point, should anybody make up such a list? When people do that, a few very important items may be left out. Still, if anybody wants to see my first attempt at building such a catalog, let me know and I’ll answer you here, or in the Forum.
Okay, so now I had two jobs: to create a female hero who did not conform to our standard ideas of beauty and strength. I find myself continually reversing course to create a female villain who, again, does not conform to the stereotype of evil personified, then a feminine hero who is not what we ordinarily consider beautiful—and values being as they are in our culture, weight is an obvious place to begin.
In A Wizard In Bedlam, the leader of the rebels is not a muscular male warrior, but an overweight woman named Lapin—French for “rabbit,” the most incongruous example I could think up—but also appropriate for a rebel leader who has to be able to run and hide at a moment’s notice, and who has to survive by her wits. She was also tremendously charismatic, with great strength of personality. In contrast, the villain in The Witch Doctor also had to be overweight and plain, to make it clear that neither set of characteristics is exclusively linked to good or evil, and to give Queen Suettay the charisma and strength of personality to lead an evil horde.
Another note—context. Several of the articles I've read tell me there have so far been three waves of feminism, and we may be starting a fourth. This has been very confusing for us—all of us, men and women alike, because cultural shifts like these don’t have exact starting and stopping dates—nobody stands up and says, “Okay, people, from now on, mini-skirts are going to be a fashion, not an exploitation.” Nonetheless, If you agree or disagree with the ideas that have not been enunciated, you can seem to be a sexist without intending to be so at all.
When I first started writing, I was pretty much in tune with the women’s movement at its beginning—after all, The Feminine Mystique had not yet been published, so my first novel, The Warlock In Spite Of Himself, was pretty much in tune with the times—the male hero saw himself as ugly but saw Gwen, the female hero, as gorgeous—why he didn’t fall for her right off the bat was simply a matter of his own self-esteem, which was well into negative numbers. Gwen was very strong, at least in terms of magical power—the most powerful witch in their medieval culture. She might not have embodied an outright reversal of stereotypes but was, I like to think, a good beginning.
However, ten years later, several readers expressed some discontent about her being a traditional, submissive woman. I will admit that there were a few booby traps waiting. Late in the book, the secondary hero and the queen’s first and most devoted suitor, Tuan, gives her a very sharp spanking so that she won’t be able to ride into battle the next morning and risk her life. Many of the female readers at the time (the late Sixties) were delighted to see the spoiled brat get her just deserts. Today, at least one reader is aghast at the idea of giving a queen a spanking, brat or not. I have to plead guilty to that one (though I’ve been hearing some odd things about a book called Fifty Shades Of Gray...).
So what has changed? Not Gwen—we were dealing with a reissue, not a rewrite. Not Gramarye, for the same reason. What had changed was our culture itself, moving toward a woman becoming able to be herself without feeling pressured into body images or behavioral gender roles.
If that’s the sort of progress we’re moving toward, I feel honored to be a part of it.
If you’d like to enter into a dialogue on the subject, please tell me so in the Forum. In the meantime, if you’re really interested in the topic, I recommend an M.A. dissertation by Vicki Medly, a graduate student at Eastern New Mexico University. In this, as in technology, space exploration and so much else, Jack Williamson was always ahead of his time.
When my family first moved to Illinois back in the '80s, I was delighted to discover that Champaign-Urbana had their own science fiction convention. Chambanacon became a regular part of our year. The people were warm and welcoming, the costumes were bright and plentiful, and the spirit was everything an SF/F Con should be. I think I split my time evenly between the swimming pool and the con suite, just sitting back and chatting with the fans about books (sometimes mine) and movies.
Then, alas, I had to travel to New Mexico for new employment (DON'T quit your day job!) and couldn't make it back home for Thanksgiving—a five-day round trip with only one of them at home. Friends at the university took me under their wings and made sure I wasn't strarved for turkey or good company. Hey, how many people can claim they had Thanksgiving with Jack Williamson?
Then the job ran out, which is another way of saying I didn't make tenure—novels didn't impress the Mass Communications faculty (I know, I know, movies and TV have become just as important to SF as books—but the faculty didn't). So I came back to Champaign on permanent basis (my wife and youngest daughter had stayed in Illinois) and was dejected to find that Chambanacon had moved to Springfield. We tried to fit convention and family all into one weekend, but there just weren't enough days. So with a heavy heart, I had to abstain from attending.
Imagine my delight this year, when I found that Chambanacon was back in Champaign! Of course we signed up, found the hotel, and came in the day after Thanksgiving. It was wonderful to see old friends again, and to meet new ones, some of whom actually remembered me and had even read some of my books! They were as warm and friendly as ever, and among the authors attending was Gene Wolfe, whose Soldier in the Mist had delighted me so much that I was ready to sign up for the Persian army as soon as I finished the last page. Once again, I spent hours in the con suite talking with fans and fellow authors, delighting in their company and storing up enough of the atmosphere of the science fiction and fantasy community to ration out during the rest of the year.
There are advantages to retirement after all.
In my college literature courses, most of my fellow students longed to write the Great American Novel. Even the professors mentioned it occasionally, but usually in a manner that invited conjecture more than description. In fact, I think some of them doubted that such a work could be written at all – but guessing as to what it would be, or even drawing up a list of its characteristics, was a good way to motivate students to develop their critical standards, and gave the creative writing majors a goal at which they could aim.
The fly in the ointment was, of course, that the Great American Novel might already have been written. The top three nominees, as I remember it, were Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and Dreiser's American Tragedy. Each pinned down a value-structure that, even today, seems to be fundamental to the American psyche. The fact that no one book had them all was incidental.
Or maybe it wasn't. After all, if the novel is to be both great and American, shouldn't it include all of America? Or is that asking too much? America is, after all, a pretty large country, both geographically and demographically, and every immigrant wave has added its own culture and values to the mix.
There's a way to approach it, though. If that Melting Pot has managed to produce a single substance that is whole and unified, perhaps we only need to identify one key value from which all the others developed a faithful alloy. If we can identify a single such cultural root, then a novel drawn from it might apply to the whole nation.
But is it necessary for the value-set to apply to the whole culture? For starters, let's try a list of American regions: New England, the East Coast (From New York to Maryland), the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, the West Coast, and because of its cultural influence, Appalachia. We should really add that the big cities constitute a region of their own, for New York City and Chicago have more in common than either has with Hannibal, Missouri, and a large part of their cultures comes from the ethnic groups they have absorbed.
Okay, that makes nine regions. What's important about each? What makes its culture unique?
Let's start with Moby Dick for a clue to New England's primary value. The most obvious root-value is Ahab's obsessive search for the White Whale and the way he attacks once he finds it. Even in death his obsession rules him, for he beckons his crew. Surely a modern analyst would classify him as having OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). The obsession of his investors, however, was profit, and their search for it led them all along the East Coast, then following the pioneers as they pushed relentlessly westward. In the process, as they spread their values throughout the country.
How about current New Englanders?
So expand that search. What was the root value that sea-merchants and land-merchants carried into the West as the United States expanded? What was the goal they pursued with Puritanical zeal, the objective for which the White Whale is a symbol? Perhaps the answer lies in the Prudential Ethic: "That which is right is also profitable." In practice, though, the phrase can very easily be inverted: "That which is profitable is also right." This explains how devout churchgoers with Bibles in their hands could be slave-owners, and how they could pollute China with opium (one opium captain made a note in his ship's log: "Employed delivering briskly—no time to read my Bible.").
The obsession of these early New Englanders, then, is profit, money. We can't blame that on their descendants, though, for the worship of Mammon has spread throughout the country.
Okay, Moby Dick leads us to strike gold as one of our key virtues. Why then do we have so many prodigals, so many people who take whatever comes their way?
The answer lies in Starbuck's reaction to Ahab's beckoning. The happy-go-lucky first mate cries out to his crew, "We do not fear whales—we kill them," and leads the last suicidal assault on Moby Dick. Those who are most prone to take life as it comes can very easily become fanatics in their own turn.
But wasn't that a long time ago?
It was, but the value endures.
Another professor told us that great literature must have the virtues of universality and timelessness—that people of today find just as much of value in the works of the ancient Greeks as did the Achaeans of their own time. That made sense to me, because a book can't be famous and still selling well if it can only be understood in the country and decade of its writing. I have read that Fiddler on the Roof was as popular in Japan as in New York, that the trials and lives of the people in a shtetl, a small Jewish village in the back country of Russia, can strike a chord that resonates with anyone caught between tradition and the modern world. This, I submit, testifies to its universality.
So why isn't it considered great literature? It's only a hundred years old, after all. Give it a century or two more and see how its sales are holding up.
How about Huckleberry Finn, my own personal favorite candidate for The Great Novel Already Written. It is timeless because it's still being read today. The library in my home town just celebrated a Mark Twain month, and Huck was very much a part of it. A musical based on the book did quite well on Broadway not so long ago, and it's interesting how much Huck resembles Starbuck.
But he doesn't represent all of America—only the Mississippi Valley and the antebellum South. The culture he represents, however, is still very much alive and influencing the rest of America, through country music if nothing else. Huck is a Noble Savage worthy of Rousseau, with an innate moral sense that makes him defy the teachings of the adults: that slaves are property and, consequently, that it is a sin for Huck to steal Jim out of slavery. Indeed, throughout the whole journey, he holds himself apart from the adults he encounters, picking and choosing which of their beliefs are right and which wrong.
I think there are still some Huck Finns among us today, thank Heaven. We need them sorely.
Don't agree with me? Good! Reply to me in this blog, and let's discuss it. Next post: Can the Great American Novel be science fiction? I'll start with Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.
Early in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle series, a character reads a book with great delight, saying that he knows he should be reading more worthy literature, but enjoys picaro novels so much that he is constantly reading them.
That's all. He doesn't mention picaresque novels again. I think this may be a tip-off that we're reading one.
Why? Easy answer—they're a lot of fun. Just to name a few, let's say The Wizard of Oz, Glory Road, and Lord of the Rings. They also include some of the classics, such as Huckeleberry Finn, The Odyssey, The Song of Roland, Tom Jones, Don Quixote, and Candide. They give scope for a great deal of adventure and excitement, and also laid the ground work for many, many television series.
So what makes them so interesting, and so widespread?
It's not hard to figure out. Their structure is journey-and-return—Frodo leaving the Shire, going through a series of hair-raising adventures, then coming home to cleanse the shire and settle down in peace and contentment. Variations on the structure are many and various—for example, Hollywood calls them "Road Movies," "Westerns," and "Travelogues,"—but they all have those essential elements: Get 'em out on the road, have them visit one exotic location after another, end by having them confront a monster (sometimes human), and send them home.
So what makes a picaresque novel different?
One main ingredient—the Spanish picaro. He or she is a rogue, an adventurer, a thief, a scalawag, a con man, a scoundrel, a knave, or any number of other people who live on the fringes of society and survive by using their wits-a trickster. We like them, we identify with them, and we applaud them. But why?
For one thing, they resemble us, though the likeness may be more in the author's and reader's minds than in any actuality. If we feel shunted to the sidings of life, scorned or mocked, we can identify with them and take some hope from their trials and eventual victories. After all, Ulysses always does arrive home.
Didn't I say a rogue, a con man? What's the King of Ithaca doing in there?
I did say a picaro lives by his wits, though, and Ulysses does—just barely, sometimes, and many of his crew are not so lucky. Authors who came after Homer found Ulysses very useful as an example and mined it for ideas—and still do, actually. If you'd like to read a space opera version, I recommend R.A. Lafferty's Space Chantey, whose hero is Captain Roadstorm. Lafferty told me that "Ulysses," if translated very badly, means "the stormy road." One of America's lesser-known legendary tall tale heroes is Mr. Stormalong, the sailor's Paul Bunyan.
But wait a minute—if the Picaresque form is so simple in its basics, how can it produce great literature?
Very easily, actually. Like any other art form, it's easy to do but hard to do well. After all, linking together a bunch of short stories to make a long story—say, a novel—is a lot easier than developing a chain of cause and effect to reach an inevitable conclusion. That's a thumbnail description of plot structure. To avoid confusion, I prefer the term "causal plot structure" because its events are linked by cause and effect.
Actually, you can start with a dozen or so little stories—episodes—and make an epic. If you do, let's call it "episodic structure" or "epic structure." But it won't be picaresque without a picaro, such as German folklore's Tyl Eulenspiegel, Norse mythology's Loki, or some like-minded prankster.
But how about the other classics of literature that sneaked in the list of Picaresque novels? How can a rogue be a hero?
Let's take a closer look. Don Quixote isn't a crook—just the opposite. He's a hopeful hero who goes little crazy (dotty) by reading all those romances—the medieval term for an epic adventure. He may lose, he may not be a trickster, but he lives by his addled wits, somehow surviving, and in the process, giving us a good look at La Mancha and the people who live in it.
Huck Finn does much the same. He's really a good-natured, laid-back kid, not a scoundrel or rogue—but in the eyes of the other villagers, he's the town's "bad boy," enough so that Tom Sawyer is told not to talk with him. The town sees him as a juvenile delinquent, partly because his father is so unsavory. He would be quite content to leave the world alone if it left him alone. It won't, of course—now and then he has to leave the raft for necessities such as food. As he drifts through America's heartland, he gives us a look at ourselves and our culture, and doesn't always find it pleasant. That's the strength of the Picaresque story: giving us a chance to look at ourselves without outright condemnation, and maybe even a sort of provisional acceptance—accepting ourselves on the condition that we try to correct the wrongs that Mark Twain has shown us. In the process, the form gives us great opportunities for humor; it lends itself very easily to satire.
So what does all this have to do with science fiction and/or fantasy?
A great deal, actually. In an earlier blog post, I presented a case for out genre having grown out of the travelogue. Criticizing our culture and our government goes back as far as Cyrano de Bergerac and his journey to the moon and the sun, to Jonathan Swift and Gulliver's Travels. In our own time, it has generated movies that have become part of the American vocabulary, and a surprising number of television series. The capacity for humor, satire, and criticism of our current condition remains expansive.
It's even useful in The Warlock in Spite of Himself.
Surely Rod Gallowglass is not a picaro!
Guilty—he is. Any secret agent is on the fringe of society, living a life of deceit, pretending to be something he is not, qualifies for the role. Rod's sense of humor is appropriate in a picaro, too. The book is political satire as well as social satire. As a political satirist, I'm making fun of politicians, some of whom can be named but aren't. The Cold War and especially the McCarthy era with its Big Red Scare underlies it; the shadow of the atom bomb's mushroom cloud darkens it. Big Tom's Marxism collides with Tuan's aristocratic ideals and Catherine's insecurities that cause her to overreact to any challenge to her authority—and, of course, Rod's commitment to democracy. As a social satirist, I take aim at the class system, the abuse of the power of an office, intolerance of any and all varieties, the Sixties' version of sexism and the antiquated notion that women couldn't be effective at politicizing (or anywhere in government).
There's more to it, most of which I resolutely refused to acknowledge until I had finished the rough draft, so that the spontaneity could persist and the humor remain unforced.
I like to think that you and I are part of a proud tradition. Let's hear it for Star Trek, Star Wars, and Firefly!