There have been some interesting debates about whether Hild is really a fantasy novel rather than a straight historical novel. Many have said, with justification, that even if there is no actual magic in the book, it still has the flavor and attack of a work of fantasy. Genre border arguments are ultimately pointless except to advertisers and marketers, and I don't wish to add to the misguided shouting. But I think a lot of discussions have overlooked the possibility of examining Hild not as fantasy, but as science fiction.
I realize, of course, that there are as many competing guidelines to differentiate fantasy from science fiction as there are critics, and that, again, these differentiations mostly don't matter. (They don't ultimately matter to me either; I'm skeptical of genre boundaries, as I've said publicly -- indeed, I said it on the panel I shared with Nicola.) But as an intellectual exercise this interests me, because I think it's easy to be distracted by the medeival setting and think that fantasy or history are our only choices.
For purposes of this essay I'm going to use the differentiating rule I devised a few years ago for a paper on the subject. If you don't like this set of definitions, you probably won't agree with the essay. To me:
A work of science fiction assumes that all that needs to be known can, eventually, be known through the application of human senses, human reason, and such devices as we can contrive. By contrast, a work of fantasy assumes that there are some important things which are not fully comprehensible by human means, no matter how advanced or sophisticated we get; some things are ineffable.
This is why Star Trek, despite its handwaving, and Doctor Who, despite its handfluttering, are science fiction to me rather than fantasy -- because their waved or fluttered aspects are still assumed to be things that can be understood, if we just get smarter brains and better equipment in a few hundred or a few thousand years. But the Harry Potter books, despite their technicality, have important topics that are marked as being essentially insoluble mysteries. What differentiates science fiction from mainstream fiction, in this regard, is that either it takes place at a time when our ability to comprehend the world and act on it has resulted in changes in that world, or else the process of knowing and understanding the world through our senses and our reason are integral to the story itself.
It is in this latter regard that I think of Hild as a work of science fiction. Its eponymous protagonist is taken by her contemporaries to be a seer, to have magical access to things going on beyond her immediate knowledge, and even to predict the future. This she appears to accomplish through omens, dreams, and visions. Because her delicate political position, her physical safety, and the safety of her friends and family depend on maintaining that role, she plays it as well as she can.
But the reader knows, as Hild herself knows, that she has no such magical abilities. She is, instead, a keenly sensitive observer of every detail of the world around her, from the condition of the feathers on a bird's wing and the overtones in the flavor of a cup of mead to the quirks and idiosyncracies of those she meets, as well as having a firm and unsentimental grasp of the economic and political realities of her time and place. She also possesses a ferocious intelligence, which gives her the ability to take the many details she absorbs and to build patterns from them that allow her to make shrewd probabalistic estimates of what is happening many miles away or what will happen soon. Thus her conclusions strike everyone around her as magical, because no other person is able to arrive at them so quickly or so accurately. In this, she resembles no other character in fiction so much as Sherlock Holmes.
Thus, Hild is about how a person navigates the world when she is so observant and intelligent that she can comprehend things far beyond the ken of those on whom her safety depends. The process of observation and induction (what Holmes erroneously called deduction) is central to the action of the novel, and is recounted deliciously in Hild's subjective impressions. Science fiction, which glories in the accomplishments of the mind, has many protagonists like this. Most immediately to my mind comes Bean, the central character in Orson Scott Card's Shadow novels, but I'm sure you could come up with a dozen yourself. Indeed, it is one of our familiar tropes (unsurprising in that many readers of science ficiton imagine themselves to be intellectually superior to those around them, and frustrated to tears at their inability to make the dullards understand).
It would be a horrible disservise to the novel to claim that Hild's abilities as an encyclopedic genius are the only interesting things about it. It is a wonderful work of character, relationship, and hard choices, and the most immersive work about the middle ages I've ever read. But I wanted to make this claim about SF because, as I say, I think it's been overlooked. Hild is a science fiction hero.
Nicola Griffith, Sandra Kasturi, Eugene Mirabelli, Kenneth Schneyer (moderator), Peter Straub.
Discrimination against speculative literature still exists, but it appears to be fading quickly. Literary awards and critics are recognizing speculative works, and major publishers are publishing them. The nerd/jock distinction still exists among teens, but the line has blurred considerably. Is there value to continuing to see the genre as belittled and beleaguered, and genre fans as an oppressed minority? Or do we have a sort of community PTSD, where we're reacting to memories of mistreatment more than to actual recent events? If the literary world is ready to accept us, are we ready to be accepted?
John Clute, Samuel Delany, Amal El-Mohtar, Francesca Forrest, Greer Gilman, Kenneth Schneyer (leader).
Nested stories consist of at least one outer story and at least one inner story. Usually the characters in the outer story are cast as the audience of the inner story, as in Hamlet or the Orphan's Tales books. But inner stories have another audience: the reader. How do we read inner stories? When our attention is brought to its story-ness, are we more conscious of being the audience than when we immerse ourselves in outer stories? Do we see ourselves as separate from the audience characters—thinking of them as the "real" audience even though they're fictional—or do we connect with them through the mutual experience of observation? And when do inner stories take on lives of their own, separate from their frames?
Anil Menon, Kit Reed, Kenneth Schneyer, Sarah Smith, Romie Stott (leader).
Many forms of entertainment conflate fiction and nonfiction. It's well documented that so-called reality TV is highly staged, directed, and manipulated to highlight conflict and manufacture happy (or tragic) endings. A number of memoirs have been revealed to be fiction. Some still want to believe professional wrestling is real. Fiction provides plenty of conflict, coherent narrative arcs, and satisfying endings, so why do we also demand those things from our nonfiction? Does believing something is "real" make it more entertaining? Or is this an expression of our dissatisfaction with the loose ends, bewildering occurrences, and interrupted stories of our own lives?
I hope to see many of you there!
About a week ago, I finished watching the first season of Sense8, Netflix's new science fiction series. Comments below include mild spoilers, not so much for plot points as for individual scenes and situations that arise.
The series posits eight individuals, four men and four women in their late 20s, who begin to be able to share one another's senses, thoughts, and abilities -- sporadically and inexplicably at first, then more consistently and volitionally as they come to know each other. Will is a Chicago police officer; Nomi (nee Michael) is a San Francisco hacker; Lito is a Mexico City film star; Sun is a Seoul business executive and martial artist; Kala is a Mumbai pharmacy student about to be married; Wolfgang is the safecracker son of a Berlin criminal family; Capheus is a Nairobi bus driver/entrepreneur; Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London. As the series progresses, they become more and more deeply involved in one another's lives, and frequently aid each other in moments of crisis, culminating in a sequence in which all of them are working in concert for the same goal.
Here are my thoughts, in more-or-less random order:
1. The season as a whole kept my attention and got my heart racing, and increasingly I couldn't keep away. At one point, I was stealing a few minutes at a time in the only hallway where I could find wireless to find out what happened in the last episode.
2. The narrative style is disjointed and delicious, especially in the first half of the season where there is so much left unexplained. I also adore the many substitutions and juxtapositions where the sensates take one another's places, be it on the job, in fights, during lovemaking.
3. I think the opening credits are meant to convey both the rich, precious variety of the human race, on the one hand, and the accelerating pace at which we are hurtling to our own destruction, on the other.
4. I was initially annoyed by the portrayal of other languages by actors speaking English with foreign accents -- until I got to the scene where two characters who spoke two different languages (Hindi and German in one case, Korean and Swahili in another) spoke to each other in those actual tongues with English subtitles, and you finally get what they've been trying to do. Very clever.
5. This is a fantasy made for the age of social media. The premise is that people who have never met, separated by thousands of miles, can be dear friends, allies, even lovers, and come to one another's rescue in moments of crisis. It is perhaps the perfect metaphorical attempt to fill rift between our decreasing physical contact and increasing ethereal contact with one another. As wish fulfilment it works very well.
6. The show reminds me of two other series I remember from my remote past: The Champions from the late 1960s, in which three intelligence agents (a pilot, a doctor, a codebreaker) maximize their physical and intellectual capacities while learning to communicate with each other telepathically. Also Search from the early 1970s, in which three (other) intelligence agents are fitted with video cameras, microphones, and implanted receivers which allow them to receive instantaneous advice from their home base.
7. Sense8 has not yet decided which side of the intimacy/fusion border it is on. (For the uninitiated: some psychologists say that "emotional fusion," the wish to erase all boundaries and become one with another, is an infantile desire to deny our own separate personhood (i.e., to reunite with the mother). Intimacy, by contrast, is described as the deliberate and scary revelation of the secret self to another; it requires an acknowledgment of boundaries so that they can be lifted, and is one of the most difficult things adults do.) In this series, the characters on the one hand seem to experience emotional fusion, but there are other moments where it is clear that they do not all know one another's thoughts and must be actually told (hence, moments of actual intimacy). It feels like the writers want to approach something like fusion, but don't want to rob the characters of the choice and risk of deliberate intimacy. I am curious to see where this will all wind up.
8. The series runs a risk of becoming sentimental and maudlin very quickly. All television series run this risk if they go on long enough (just look at Season Seven of pretty much any series you loved, and watch the number of times characters (mirroring the feelings of the viewers) say "Oh, X, you mustn't do that because we love you and it will break my heart" or similar), but because this first season has been so heavily character oriented, the audience already knows these eight people well and has shared in their personal sorrows and fears. We are already, at the end of episode 12, prone to have a don't-hurt-my-babies feeling about them. I fear that future seasons may feature long, "deep" shots of one of the sensates' faces, as we emote right along with him/her for the entire episode.
9. It is a superhero series. The sensates' ability to adopt each other's abilities at will means that each of them, at any moment, is a financial wizard hacker cop gangster actor martial artist daredevil driver biochemist who speaks seven languages. Like all stories about superpowers, its problem is finding credible obstacles to make the drama believable. The few "enemy" sensates we have met (much like Magneto's mutants in the X-Men stories) may serve this function.
10. It runs the risk of becoming Mission: Impossible. Each of the characters may, if the writers aren't careful, fall in to a stock role where they're essentially doing the same thing over and over. One can see Lito as the Master of Disguise (Martin Landau / Leonard Nimoy), Sun as the "muscle" (Peter Lupus), Nomi as the technojock (Greg Morris), Riley as the "babe" (Barbara Bain / Linda Day George), etc. Of course we've seen this same tendency with many other "team mission" series such as Criminal Minds, The A-Team, Leverage, etc.). The sequence in which all eight of them work together very much had that flavor to it; I couldn't help loving it, but it worried me. It's not necessarily a bad trope, unless it begins to be used thoughtlessly.
11. I am fascinated with the gradually unfolding backstory revelation of each character. Particularly I'm interested in how pointedly the series has shown us the sensates' relationships with their parents, which in some cases are very strongly negative, even abusive (Nomi, Wolfgang), in others exceptionally loving and supportive (Riley, Capheus, Kala), and others who seem to have both at the same time (Sun, Will). Only Lito's parents are still unknown to us. Childhood trauma and/or loss is very strongly indicated as a prime motivator for Will, Wolfgang, Nomi, Riley, Sun, Capheus.
12. Even more interesting is the complimentary relationship of their personalities. In particular, Sun and Capheus, who have the greatest level of physical and moral courage, and Nomi, who firmly grasps her hard-won personal integrity, are materially helpful to Lito, who begins the series with neither courage nor integrity.
13. I like the assertion articulated by Jonas that the sort of enforced empathy that the sensates have for each other is a species-level survival trait. They are destined to save the world, he believes, because they are much less likely to kill than ordinary humans, because "It's easy to kill when you can't feel." In this sense, the sensates' connection is a metaphor for the urgent needs of our current human condition. BUT:
14. This assertion is not particularly borne out by the actions of the sensates thus far. Capheus (with Sun's and Will's help) and Wolfgang have, between them, killed about 30 people by the end of episode 12. It is presented as mostly, but not entirely, self-defense, but I wonder whether the sensates are going to be so lethal, with so little reflection, in the future. I have been shocked, actually, that the more sensitive souls among them (Lito, Riley, Kala) have let these deaths go by with so little comment or criticism. Kala even helps Wolfgang kill some people -- something she might do in an emergency no matter who she is, but where is her remorse? Wolfgang has none, but we don't expect him to. We are told that Will is emotionally unable to murder, but his solution is simply to invoke Wolfgang, whose ruthlessness proves useful.
15. The few times when all eight of them appear to be in synchrony with each other -- each involving a piece of music, I think -- are transcendent.
16. While their similar age is explained in the series, it's noteworthy and disappointing that they're nearly all middle class (at least) as well. Arguably Capheus is not, although owning his own bus potentially puts him in more control of his economic future than many.
17. There's a moment in one of the last few episodes where the visual impact of a scene is much higher if you happen to understand Icelandic patrinomial nomenclature.
Anyway, despite all the reservations and worries and analyses I express above, I am captivated and will undoubtedly be counting the days until Season Two is released.
Saturday, May 9:
Reading, Kenneth Schneyer, 11:00 a.m. (I'm going to read my new not-yet-published story, "The Plausibility of Dragons.")
"Borders (if any) Between Fan & 'Original' Fiction", Mur Lafferty, Andre Lievin, Kenneth Schneyer (moderator), Anatoly Bililovsky, noon.
Autographing, Barbara Chepaitis & Kenneth Schneyer. (I'll have copies of The Law & the Heart for sale, just in case you didn't bring your own. :) ) 1:30 p.m.
"SF vs. Fantasy -- is there a difference?", Mercurio Rivera, Paul Park, Catherine Stine, James L. Cambias, Kenneth Schneyer, Chuck Rothman (moderator), 4:00 p.m.
"Flash Fiction", Electra Hammond (moderator), Kate Laity, Kenneth Schneyer, Alex Shvartsman, Chuck Rothman.
Sunday, May 10:
"The Future of Copyright", Mur Lafferty, Kenneth Schneyer 1:00 p.m.
So yeah, Saturday's gonna be pretty busy. If you happen to be in Albany this weekend, come say hello!
Here's my father's third extant bridge column. It's one of my favorites, as he loved to quote the first paragraph over and over. I'd forgotten about takeout doubles and overcalls, but it all begins to come back to me now...
Mathematical Genius, or, Points Are Points
By Jerome J. Schneyer, M.D.
June 1, 1967
A group of research scientists have recently announced that they have discovered a certain type of animal of measurable, but limited, intelligence. It is able to count to thirteen and twenty-six, but is completely unable to count as high as forty. What I would like to know is how that animal so frequently gets situated across the bridge table from me. Let the scientists answer that one.
♠ 7 5 4
♥ 10 8 3 2
♦ 5 4 2
♣ A Q J
♠ K Q J 9
♥ K J 6 4
♦ K 7 6
♣ 8 2
♠ 6 3 2
♥ 9 7
♦ J 10 9 8 3
♣ 9 6 4
♠ A 10 8
♥ A Q 5
♦ A Q
♣ K 10 7 5 3
Rubber bridge S W N E
Vulnerable: none 1♣ dbl pass 1♦
South deals 2 NT pass 3 NT pass
Opening lead: K♠
First, as to the bidding: whether or not North should bid 2♣ over the takeout double is a matter of debate; with a hand as square as North has, it is usually better to pass and await developments.
South hesitated a few seconds after the dummy went down; North, being slightly theatrical, had put down the beautiful club suit last of all and South was trying to reswallow his heart after thinking the dummy was trickless. Having done this, he began to think, in this case a very fortunate circumstance for the opponents, of how to play the hand. Eight tricks were cold and finesses were possible in both red suits for a ninth, he pondered. Furthermore, there would be no point in holding off in spades, since both finesses must be taken into West; finally, he thought, diamonds must be the suit to try, since West is likely to have both majors, and East bid diamonds.
The cogitation over, South scooped in the first trick with the A♠, crossed over to the dummy J♣, and led a small diamond, finessing the queen. West gobbled up this trick, ran his three good spaces, and got out with a club. South then expended a considerable amount of time and energy in worry, but to no avail; West was certain to get a heart trick and the contract was doomed.
As the cards were being dealt for the next hand, South, in an effort to placate North, whose wattles were flushed a delightful shade of crimson with rage, commented to the effect that "they can't all be on-side" or some other such trivia. That did it. North proceeded to comment acidly on South's ancestry, place of origin, legitimacy, intelligence, and other assorted attributes and, in the course of his Phillipic, happened to mention the correct way to play the hand, briefly thus:
West made a takeout double, a bid requiring 14 points. Inasmuch as south is looking at 26 points between his own hand and the dummy, and there are only 40 points total in the cards, it is obvious that both finesses are bound to lose, since East cannot possibly hold a king (unless someone has slipped in a funny deck). This being the case, South should merely run his five club tricks and then lead the spade ten, allowing West to run his three tricks (West doesn't likely have a five-card spade suit, else he would have overcalled rather than making a takeout double). West must then lead away from one of his red kings and the contract rolls home.
So please try to remember to learn to count to forty; surely you don't want the scientists investigating you.* * * * * * *
And here's the column in its original printed form:
This year I'm going to start by mentioning stories I've read that I think would be good award candidates this year. I haven't done nearly as much reading this year as I'd like (especially at longer lengths), so I'm sure there are lots of wonderful things missing. But here goes:
- E. C. Ambrose, Elisha Magus
- James Cambias, A Darkling Sea
- Grady Hendrix, Horrorstör
- Nancy Kress, Yesterday's Kin
- Ken Liu, "The Regular" (Upgraded)
- N. K. Jemisin, "Stone Hunger" (Clarkesworld)
- Sam J. Miller, "We Are the Cloud" (Lightspeed)
- Helena Bell, "Married" (Upgraded)
- Adam-Troy Castro, "The Thing About Shapes to Come" (Lightspeed)
- Lara Elena Donnelly, "Chopin's Eyes" by Lara Elena Donnelly (Strange Horizons)
- Amal El-Mohtar, "The Lonely Sea in the Sky" (Lightspeed)
- Matthew Kressel, "The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye" (Clarkesworld)
- Carmen Maria Machado, "Observations about Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa" (Lightspeed)
- Shira Lipkin, "The Final Girl" (Strange Horizons)
- Ken Liu, "The Clockwork Soldier" (Clarkesworld)
- Usman Malik, "Resurrection Points" (Strange Horizons)
- Sarah Pinsker, "No Lonely Seafarer" (Lightspeed)
- Sofia Samatar, "How to Get Back to the Forest" (Lightspeed)
- Damien Angelica Walters, "The Serial Killer's Astronaut Daughter" (Strange Horizons)
- Alyssa Wong, "Santos de Sampaguitas" (Strange Horizons)
- I Remember the Future, (Klayton Stainer, dir, based on the story by Michael A. Burstein)
- Matt London,The 8th Continent.
Now for the sake of completeness, here are my own award-eligible stories from 2014:
- "Living in the Niche", Triptych Tales (December 1, 2014).
- "I Wrung It In a Weary Land", in "Drink Me", Podcastle #330 (September 27, 2014).
- "I is for...", A is for Apocalypse
- "Exceptionalism", The Law & the Heart
- "Grapple with Thee", The Law & the Heart
- "Half a Degree", The Law & the Heart
- "The Orpheus Fountain", The Law & the Heart
- "Levels of Observation", Mythic Delirium #0.3 (Jan-Mar, 2014).
* * * * *
On Advice from Mothers
By Jerome J. Schneyer, M.D.
(May 25, 1967)
Once upon a time, there was a poor but honest boy named Jack, who, having demonstrated his bridge supremacy in his home town of Flouridation, North Dakota, set out to make his mark in the big wide world of bridge players. Jack had a kindly (aren't they all?) mother, who gave him this parting advice: "Jack, always trust people; the best in human nature will shine through." Very sweet. She can play bridge against me anytime.
♠ K 6
♥ A 10 9 8 5
♦ K Q 6 2
♣ 4 2
♠ Q J 10 5
♦ 8 7 3
♣ A Q J 8 5
♠ A 9 7 4 2
♥ K 3
♦ A 9 4
♣ K 9 3
♠ 8 3
♥ Q J 7 4 2
♦ J 10 5
♣ 10 7 6
Duplicate bridge N E S W
Both vulnerable 1♥ dbl 2♠ dbl
North deals pass pass 3♥ pass
Opening lead: A♠
Jack hated to overcall on such a shaky space suit in the East seat and, besides, he had a textbook takeout double. South, the deceptive wretch, realized that, unless his partner's opening bid were very strong, and possible even then, East-West must have a cinch game in spades. Holding such wonderful heart support and no defensive values at all, he could afford to jazz up the bidding a bit; so he made a jump bid to 2♠ on a holding of 8-3 doubleton, just like he had it.
West naturally doubled this bid and, when the bidding came around to south again, he "rescued" himself to 3♥. Now West hated to bid clubs at the four level, so he passed the 3♥ bid around to his partner, feeling that good old Jack would not forget his previous double.
The decision was in good hands: sure enough, Jack remembered that West had doubled 2♠ but, on looking at his own spade length, Jack figured that the double had been based on generally distributed strength. He remembered his mother's advice and trusted South's bidding implicitly, figuring South for something like K-Q-x-x-x of spades and Q-x-x of hearts. In any event, it was obvious that East-West had a misfit and that the opponents were never going to make 3♥. Decision made. . . "Double!" from Jack.
He was right, too. Three hearts went down one for 200 points to East-West and Jack was preening himself for heeding his mother when West drily pointed out that this penalty was hardly compensation for a vulnerable game, to say nothing of the ice-cold slam that East-West had missed. Poor Jack! To this day, he doesn't trust anyone, including his mother.
Shed a tear for Jack. Better bridge players than he have been talked out of contracts before this. Jack's trouble was that he placed too much faith in the opponents' bidding. Always remember that those guys are going to be giving you very little; they're out for themselves, drat 'em. In a situation like this, believe your partner; if he doubles the opponents' bid when logic tells you that he can't possibly have their suit, somebody is trying to pull a fast one and it's probably NOT your partner; he's on your side (it says here).
Here's the column in its original published form: