Tuesday, January 24, 2012

History and Convergent Books

2011 was an interestingly synchronicitous year for me, reading-wise. As a general rule, I read a handful of historical sci-fi and fantasy books each year, and when I read non-fiction, there's a pretty good chance it'll be historical in nature too*. Normally the books I pick up don't coincide as much as 2011's did, though, and they usually don't get me thinking on a meta-level afterwards.

What started me off was watching Anonymous almost immediately after reading Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear. They both deal with the conspiracies and politics around the throne of Elizabeth I, and both place Shakespeare's plays at the center of the story—with reinterpretations of what that role really was. Anonymous states that Shakespeare's plays were written by the Earl of Oxford as a statement against the party line, and that Shakespeare was the front for the operation. Ink and Steel, on the other hand, has Shakespeare writing his own plays, with the help of a couple nobles versed in magic, and Kit Marlowe, who's living in Faerie instead of being dead. The plays are written in support of the party line (or at least the "good" politics), and the Earl of Oxford is part of the faction intent on bringing James I to power in England. Both stories state the Earl is Elizabeth's bastard.

I admit to knowing nothing about Elizabethan court politics prior to Ink and Steel, so don't know if Bear's portrayal is accurate or not—or even if we know enough about the people involved to have a good picture of what sides they were on. Having read it first, though, I accepted the factions as historical fact, which made seeing Anonymous, which had largely the same cast of characters but in different political roles, a little jarring. Why would so-and-so be saying that? Isn't he for Elizabeth? After a while, though, I gave up trying to make sense of it all and assumed the politics in Anonymous were as made up as the supposed Shakespeare conspiracy. After all, the screenwriters couldn't even be bothered to place the plays in the right order.**

I had a related experience with The Hammer and the Cross, a history of the Vikings from the first historical records to the point at which everyone seems to have settled down, become Christian, and stopped raiding other countries. In this case, I'd read an article earlier in the year about how some of those Viking men who'd been buried with swords and armor and gold were actually women. Unfortunately, The Hammer and the Cross was written before we knew that, so while part of me took the facts at face value and wanted to believe them all, because if it's in a book it must be true, part of me knew there were facts missing and kept adding "and also women" during the battle accounts.

I'm writing this post as an educated adult who's fairly up on her (Western) history and so tends to pick up historical fiction and non-fiction already knowing the general facts. This means that I'll notice basic errors, like epic fantasy hay bales, but when writers make more obscure mistakes, I'm with the majority in assuming there was no mistake at all. That in itself is an argument for accuracy of research, no? I read to learn, and I don't want to learn the wrong things. It distorts my perception of the world. That doesn't mean I'm not for taking creative liberties with facts if that's what the story demands, but I'd like the writer to be upfront about it in a foreword, afterword, or in the way they present the information in-text. The writers of Anonymous, I feel, were not upfront about their changes at all. I'd be less critical of  the film if they had been.

I've talked before about how we approach history. Our past defines us and guides our actions whether we want it to or not, and I think understanding how history interacts with the present and how different cultures worked and were interconnected strengthens our view of the world. Not to get too self-helpy on you. But it's one of the reasons I think historical fiction, SFF or otherwise, is important, because it takes historical fact and makes it come alive. And *points to previous paragraph* why I think historical accuracy is important too.

That brings me to the last coincidental pair of books from last year. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, is a time travel story about a historian stranded in the 1300s valiantly recording her experiences and getting caught up in the lives around her. It's about people and crises and life. Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, is a first-contact story, about an alien ship that crashes in the medieval Black Forest, and the locals who help them survive and who initiate cultural exchange. It has a lot of interesting things to say about the intersection of science and religion, as well as what makes a "person", and the Black Forest setting feels as real as Willis's Oxford.

I find it interesting that two books set during the same time period, both well-researched, well-written, and critically acclaimed, can have such vastly different feels. Willis' Middle Ages are raw where Flynn's are a little idealized, because that's their stories require.The same goes for Anonymous and Ink and Steel, or any group of books set during whatever time period. History's surprisingly fluid, not just because the archeological record can be interpreted multiple ways or because established facts are sometimes not established at all, but because we impose biases on it, rework it to make a point, and promote some facts over others to influence reality. I love that about it, especially when it results in historical fiction, and especially because comparing different takes on the same history is fun for me.

A good writer will make the reader believe that they're truly taking part in the Middle Ages, or Elizabethan England, or eighteenth-century China, or wherever, and that's important and good, but it's also no substitute for primary documents and historical non-fiction. Fiction is lies, after all, even if it's one lie couched in a lot of fact. I get a lot of my history from novels and movies, and from comparing different fictions, but I keep a saltshaker handy, read informed reviews, and look stuff up if it tickles my interest. It's a good way to read, I think. And a pretty decent way to travel through time.

* Or neuroscience.
** I read Marvel: 1602 after seeing Anonymous and was pleased to see the politics were still there, but that Marvel characters had replaced the courtiers. I liked that--although I would've liked Shakespeare to cameo.
*** Neither is Marvel: 1602 but I hope that's obvious.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Great Superhero Read - Marvel: 1602

As always, here be spoilers.

I asked for Marvel: 1602 for my birthday last year, knowing only the hook: Marvel-verse heroes in Elizabethan England, instead of the present day. Also Neil Gaiman. Knowing Gaiman, I expected the layered, beautiful, intelligent story, but I didn't expect it to be integrated into the modern-day Marvel canon. I thought it would be much more of a fanfic/what-if situation.

The story starts by establishing characters, setting, and the threat that must be stopped, and as the book goes on we meet more characters and get further twists. It's a great all-round read, with requisite superhero power usage and intrigue that kept me flipping pages, but one of the things I liked best was turning a page and going, "Hey, it's that guy! I know that guy!" followed by either "Of course that's what he'd be doing" or "That was an interesting career switch. Huh. Wonder why?"* I really liked how Gaiman wove so many of the Marvel standbys into the story and made it seem right, and how well he made the characters fit into the time period. How well some of the characters fit without needing to be changed.

If you've been following this superhero project of mine, you probably know that I mainly know the Marvel-verse from the movies and internet-fed geek osmosis. This still means that I know the basic situations the characters find themselves in, I know some of the relationships the characters have to each other, I know how the characters relate to their world. (I think. Hopefully.) So it was interesting to see all that being rewritten and how Gaiman handles all the origin stories in a world where technological explanations won't fly. Of course he'd use magic and/or the arcane and instead, because what are superpowers but magic anyway? Plus Elizabethans had a healthy belief in magic already, or some of them did if John Dee is anything to go by. Using magic grounds the characters in their new world.

Gaiman handles the impact of superpowers on seventeenth-century Europe very well all round, but I'd expect nothing less. I'm thinking mostly about the Inquisition going after the witchbreed here, and the fear James I instills in just about everyone with powers. It felt very believable to me while I was reading and, I'll admit, generated more of a sense of wonder than the Spider-Man omnibus did. That was straight-up action. This is shiny, with an open-ended feel not only because not all the Marvel characters appeared in 1602 but also because in the end, the characters have the whole future ahead of them. Anything could happen!

When I said the superpowers in 1602 were caused by magic, I actually lied. The characters approach the powers as having magical origins and the way the powers are described reinforces the idea, but they actually result from the universe trying to reset the Earth after one Steve Rogers is thrown back in time. Therefore, the superpowers are caused by quantum, as Terry Pratchett would say. Which is essentially magic anyway, due to Clarke's Third Law and most people not understanding higher physics. And of course, the introduction of future!Captain America means that Marvel: 1602 isn't just a rewriting, it's a parallel universe.

To sum up: Marvel: 1602 is pitch-perfect on characterization, setting, and story, and hits every note I didn't know I wanted from a reworking of the Marvel canon. There are hidden levels you can peal the story apart to find, and more going on than you actually get to see on the page. And I desperately want a sequel, or prequel, or something to I can see more of everyone's adventures. (Alas, I will probably not get it, even if I somehow manage to buy/inherit Marvel.) I could probably reread the book and pick up on things I didn't catch the first time round, and that's always a sign of quality fiction for me. I wholeheartedly recommend you read this, if you're anywhere near the "target audience" of comic fans, alternate history fans, and Gaiman nerds.

* There were also "oh!" moments pertaining to people's powers, people's relationships, and what America means.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Computing, Holographs, and Medicine - A Science Round-Up

It's been a long time since I've done a science round-up, which means there's an awful lot of links in this post. Hopefully you're all nerdy enough about science to think that's a bonus.

Most of the cool scientific advances since my last post have been technological. We can produce microscopically thin circuit boards out of graphene, which means smaller computers and hopefully greater processing power. Those computerized glasses might become a reality—not that it matters, because there are LED contact lenses in the works. There's also conductive ink now, which promises to do some very cool things.

There are robots swimming across the Pacific and self-assembling 3D objects that come in a number of shapes, not just one at a time. Holographic TV and movies might become a reality soon too, which would be awesome. We've seen it in enough science fiction, it's time it actually happens. Plus it'll get rid of that 3D headache problem!

A group of scientists has recently managed to create an invisibility cloak that also hides objects from time. Granted, it's not even close to being a piece of fabric yet, and probably never will be, but the potential for hiding things in plain sight like that … wow. It's even cooler than macroscopic quantum entanglement or self-cleaning fabric, though that's pretty cool as well.

What else have I come across? The fact that memory comes in packets is intriguing, and makes me wonder how that knowledge is going to impact psychology. I don't know enough about neuropsych and neuroscience to be able to hazard a guess at what that might be, though, but I feel like I should use it in a story at some point. The idea has potential.

And speaking of human biology, we may actually have a functional antiviral now! And io9 has a list of modern medical technologies that we're going to think are barbaric in the future. I'd like to see stories about people looking back at modern medicine with horror, or time travellers doing the same, or, better yet, people proposing technologies that'll surpass what's on that list. In fiction or reality, I don't care.

I think I'll end today on an anthropological note. There's now evidence that humans left Africa over 100,000 years ago, Which is about 30,000 years before anyone thought they had. This means rethinking ancient human cultures and migration patterns, and possibly other artifacts that don't quite fit where they've been placed at the moment. Me? I'll leave that to the scientists and get on with thinking of the hows and whys of that migration, and any human dramas that might make a good tale.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year and Sundry

So it's 2012 and I feel like I should probably start blogging again. Or at least update this thing and let everyone know I'm still alive.* 2011 was a year. Some good, some bad, all kind of merging into normality. I suspect 2012 will be the same, and I've learned my lesson about hoping to finish writing projects. It never happens, and whenever I think I'm done, I manage to set myself back a good couple years. It's like I'm Sisyphus or one of those math problem snails (A snail is climbing a window. Every day it climbs three inches, and every night it slides back two inches. If the window is three feet tall, how long until the snail reaches the top of the glass?). In other words, if you ask about my novel, I will probably hit you.

Anyway, last year I listed my favourite books of the year—as in "what I read", not "what came out" like most lists seem to be. Pleasingly, I pretty much matched my "new to me" numbers, with 55 books read in 2010 and 54 in 2011, re-read two books each year, and finished two previously started books. I figure I'm pretty close, especially since I'm pretty sure 2011's books were thicker on average. And I did slightly better at getting non-genre fiction into my diet! One book in 2010 vs. three in 2011**. Also eight non-fiction books in 2011 vs. six in 2010.

Here's my best of the year, for what they're worth:

Best Urban Fantasy: Midnight Riot tied with Of Blood and Honey
Best Non-Urban Fantasy: The Girl with Glass Feet
Best Superhero Novel: Wild Cards I
Best Science Fiction: The Passage, closely followed by book #54, Eifelheim
Best Non-Genre Adult Fiction: Cloud Atlas
Best YA: The Clockwork Giant
Best Non-Fiction: The Hammer and the Cross

If you're curious about why I picked those particular books, ask in the comments. If I give each of them a mini-review right now, this post will never end. If you want to know what else I read, the list is here.

As for blogging plans for the new year, I don't really have any except that I'm going to do my best to get a post up every week. I want to continue talking about and reviewing superhero fiction of varying types, since I've read more superhero novels, acquired more graphic novels, and had a backlog of superhero film media to begin with. Plus, y'know, superheroes are awesome. I've also been archiving interesting science, so expect a post on that in the near future. Beyond that … I don't really want to talk about my process and progress with my writing, because that just gets me bummed, but other than that, I'm pretty open to suggestions. Note that I do not and will probably never have a Life to discuss here.

* I am.
** Yes, it's still pathetic. SFF is too distracting.