I’m not generally enthused about humans as a species. We’re not as perfect as we tend to believe, and I highly doubt that humans are the ultimate pinnacle of life. But one human quality I do think is pretty great? Our hands.
Oh, hands aren’t necessary for higher functions. Birds get by just fine without hands: there are myriad examples of ordinary Earth birds using their beaks and feet to make wire tools or build elaborate nests. They can even open containers designed for human hands, and teach other birds how they did it.
That’s how my phoenixes get by Tinder Stricken. They’re dextrous enough to tie knots and start fires with flint and tinder, despite a marked lack of thumbs. Most of their complex skills are taught, from parent to chick — or simply older phoenix to younger phoenix.
Tinder Stricken’s other non-human race, the leviathans/water serpents, have proved more difficult to write interacting with their environment. Our real world doesn’t have much precident for salamanders or fish handling small objects. But between salamanders’ delicate little feet and the sensitive, whisker-like barbels on bottom-dwelling fish, I’m making it work.
Thinking about this basic physical issue is what got me appreciating all the human hands here on Earth. Hands are a luxury we take for granted. Just look at Wikipedia’s thorough study of our hands! They’re a pretty big deal! Our thumb and fingers have a wide range of motion. Our arrangement of fingers allows for many variations of grip. Human hands are precise enough to slip the skin off a roasted peanut, but strong enough to karate chop through hardwood boards. (Hypothetically. I mean, I can’t chop through boards and it would take me quite a while to learn how.)
Nothing else on Earth has the sheer versatility of a human hand. No wonder we stick hands onto most anthropomorphic animal characters: it makes them easier to write stories with, and easier to relate to.
And despite humans’ skill at grasping weapons and smashing things, our fleshy, dextrous hands are also good at pleasant actions like massaging, stroking, and friendly scratching. Dogs love it. Cats love it. Foxes and owls and eels love it. I like to jokingly imagine that our hands are the one truly redeeming quality of humanity, the contribution we make to the universe that no other species can. Highly advanced entities from other galaxies will tell each other, “Oh man, you have to visit the third planet from The Sun and try the scalp massage, it’s amazing.”
So to you readers navigating the Internet with buttons and touchpads, I say we all grasp a container full of beverage and raise it in toast to human hands. They’re not the only way to interact with the world — but they are a very, very good one.
- Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism
- Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for?
- Knife calluses and what they say about their owners
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be happy. Y’know, other than the obvious.
This isn’t a new quandary for me. I’m part of the millennial generation, an age group that’s getting a lot of mixed messages about what to do with our lives. And as a fantasy writer trying to make meaningful statements, I’ve always questioned what life and its components really are. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking particularly about what happiness is —partly because I’ve been managing anxiety in that past year, too.
I mean, it was nothing serious. Difficulty sleeping and some general unease, fixed with a tiny daily dose of antidepressants and some life changes. Pretty easy fix, as far as medical conditions go. My family history of nervous dispositions — we’re like horses, you see: strong but sometimes finicky — wasn’t as big an issue as the fact that I needed to examine my life. Get a different job. Adjust my writing career focus. Throw out some junk, both literal and figurative.
It’s a lot like what Peregrine does in my first book, Remedy. His doubts and fears need to be addressed, and a job change and a plague relief effort help him break out of his little rut of worries. I didn’t take as long to straighten out my issues as Peregrine did, thankfully (partly because I’m not a dragon and I don’t have 80 years to spend on a midlife crisis).
And as the Tinder Stricken draft opens up to me, I find more and more that Esha isn’t simply chasing the thief phoenix to get her stolen heirloom knife back. She’s also chasing that phoenix as a desperate attempt to put her life in order and, ultimately, be happy. The story isn’t about a petty theft so much as Esha and the phoenix reacting to their crummy lots in life, and trying to change those lots. That’s how I write. I don’t typically like stories that focus on hatred, or revenge, or a lust for power — because there’s too much of that in our real modern Earth. I’d rather spend time with characters who seek happiness and comfort in the middle of a turbulent world.
Last time I saw my nurse practitioner, she said she’s glad to hear that I’ve made some positive changes.
“I had all the pieces,” I told her. “I just had to move them around.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling kindly, “but some people don’t move their pieces around.”
I think that’s an important way to view life. We all have pieces. Maybe they’re not the pieces we want — but we have pieces. Maybe we can construct happiness if we just try moving them.
- Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?
- Fiction begins with real life: The story of a rapping guy
- What maturity means
Fantasy and sci-fi stories aren’t limited to human characters. With a little thought and effort, an author can give intelligence, emotion and personality to just about anything we can imagine — animal, vegetable, mineral, or abstract concepts. Dragons and cat-people are actually fairly tame choices, if you think about it.
But fantasy/sci-fi brings up some weak points in our languages — such as the distinction of what, exactly, a “person” is. Is it an accurate term for xenomorphs and magical creatures? Would a non-human individual even identify with the human word “person”?
Oh, there are ways around the issue. We can refer to intelligent non-humans as “beings” or “individuals”. Characters can talk about “this one” or “that one”. And a story can just call characters by their names, species and formal titles, without ever speaking broadly about persons or people.
But why avoid it? If we can’t question the nature of personhood in genres full of faeries and aliens, where can we question it?
Language-wise, it’s a tricky issue. Here on real-life Earth, Homo sapiens hasn’t met any other clearly defined intelligent races yet, so we usually only need to talk about ourselves. The human connotation of “person” is usually a moot point. We do, however, see it surface occasionally in the news — such as in medical definitions of consciousness, or as part of the movement to grant personhood rights to whales and dolphins. (That link actually makes some interesting points about the nature of personhood, so I highly recommend reading it.)
This question seems to get mixed responses in the anthropomorphic/furry circles I’ve experienced. Some fans feel that “person” is a term too strongly tied to the human species. Furry literature sometimes uses “fur” to identify an intelligent being — so that an anthropomorphic fox character talks about this fur, somefur, everyfur or anyfur. It’s a striking way to remind the reader that there are no humans here, as well as give the characters a sense of their own vocabulary and culture.
Myself? I think “person” can be used to describe any being comparable to a human in intelligence or complexity. “Person” and “people” are commonly used words in my Stories of Aligare, where the three races call each other “peoplekind” instead of “species”.
That was a partly reactionary choice, I have to admit. Anthropomorphic characters are is often marketed — and perceived by the general public — as vapid children’s entertainment. I’ve long been frustrated with people assuming that my stories aren’t about humans, therefore they must be about cartoon mascots for preschoolers. Awww, look at the little animal people! No, my characters are just people.
But word roots also factored into my choice. In the English language, “person” didn’t originally specify a human at all. Quoth the dictionary:
ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French persone, from Latin persona ‘actor’s mask, character in a play,’ later ‘human being.’
Throughout human history, masks have represented a wide variety of beings — humans, animals, mythological beings and gods. And hey, that brings us back to the idea that when we open our minds, anything and anyone can be a significant, meaningful character. Fantasy and sci-fi have the power to really explore that.
So that’s why I like to classify intelligent, fictional beings by the same “person” I’d use for myself. That term can help a seemingly simple creature serve us up some food for thought.
- Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism
- The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology
- Why fantasy?
Work continues on Tinder Stricken. What I originally thought would be a quick blitz through a mountain world has become an odyssey of learning and stretching myself as a writer. So I’ve been painting lately, trying to cement some mental images. You might have already seen these if you follow me on Twitter!
This is a house on Tselaya Mountain, made of clay, stone and bamboo (one of few plant products cheap enough for lesser castes to build with). This concept painting was mostly to help me remember the coloured flags. Inspired by Tibetan and Nepalese prayer flags, the five colours of flags are used to show a household’s rank, occupation(s), marital status, and much more.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this significant character much —mostly because her personal traits only gelled recently, and also because I can’t decide on a name for her. She’s Kaewa right now and we’ll see if that sticks! Kaewa is from a Maori-inspired coastal society. On Tselaya Mountain, she works as a diplomat, using plant-based magic to translate languages, understand people, and mediate disputes. She also speaks with animals — which is a taboo subject among Tselayans. She’s pictured with her closest phoenix friend, who is her clever partner in less-than-legal human matters.
And with a new novel comes a new table display! I’m building up a base for a nearly-life-size Tselayan phoenix made of paper maché. Like my other paper maché display pieces, this will be built up into the right shape and then finished with acrylic paint and feathers. Nothing says “cool, non-human character” like a dramatically fanned pair of wings, am I right?
So if I’m quiet in the next few months, it’s because I’m working my creative butt off! Tinder Stricken will hit metaphorical shelves in late May, 2015.
- Designing the phoenixes of Tselaya Mountain
- Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi
- The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology
I recently changed my day job. Tired of the customer-service grind of being a waitress, I decided to return to my professional cooking roots — but this time, I’m working as a prep cook. It’s less exciting than being the line cook who makes meals with speed and flair, but that’s okay. I’m not looking to be a hotshot in my day job. Cutting vegetables and making basic sauces will hopefully be a low-stress occupation that leaves me more energy for writing.
Although, it’s been about 6 years since I last chopped restaurant quantities of vegetables. My knife callus had long since faded away, and in the past few weeks I’ve had to harden my hands up again. It made me realise that a chef’s knife leaves a very particular mark on its user — and that’s a detail not everyone is aware of, because it’s not very glamorous. Knife calluses aren’t something a Food Network host will grinningly tell you about.
So, since I’m a world-building fantasy writer, how about I show you a defining part of my real-life world? I’ve been showing all my friends this visible change in my hands. I find it interesting that my occupation is changing the texture of my hands, and leaving a visible mark. It’s telling. But more on that later.
First things first! When I talk about using a chef’s knife, I mean something like this:
Chef’s knives vary slightly in design, depending on whether the knife is German, French or Japanese-styled. The blade can be between 6 and 14 inches long (15 and 36 cm), but the most common chef’s knives are between 8 and 10 inches (20 and 25 cm) long. My own knife is a 9-inch Victoronox, a lightweight, nimble model preferred by the female chefs who trained me. My new workplace provides a whole bucket of chef’s knives for my use, all between 8 and 11 inches, and all of them a heavier tool than I’d prefer. It’s like wearing nice, breezy sneakers every day and then suddenly putting on hiking boots that, relatively speaking, feel like blocks of cement.
Anyway, regardless of the knife’s exact measurements, a professional cook gets a callus from using it. A very particular callus, on the index finger of their dominant hand. Here’s mine:
Why does the chopping friction affect such a small, specific area? Because when you use a knife for hours each day, it’s not always held by the handle. Well, uh, let me show you. With some pictures of me using my Victoronox knife in my tiny apartment kitchen.
Tender foods — such as parsley leaves — don’t provide much resistance. The cook can easily hold the knife by its handle and make a quick up-and-down chopping motion.
But when cutting larger or tougher foods, holding the knife by its handle puts the cook’s wrist at an ineffective angle. It’s more efficient to actually hold the base of the blade, to allow more direct downward force. Like so:
That blunt edge of the knife is what creates the callus. And that callus shows that I work with actual meat and vegetables, not factory-made things pulled out of the freezer. My prep work isn’t glamorous but it’s a necessary part of making really good food, which is why I’m proud of my little friction wound.
And that’s what I mean by my knife callus being a defining detail of me. It’s always kind of bothered me when I’m reading a fantasy story and it offhandedly mentions some character’s “callused hands of a swordsman”, or whatever their profession is. Callused in what way? Just callused all over? Probably not. And they’re probably not the same calluses you’d find on an archer, or a seamstress, or a blacksmith.
Granted, I’m sure most authors don’t want to include an infodump explanation of exactly where a swordsman’s hands get callused. They might not even know where a sword hilt rubs on its user’s hands — because I sure don’t. It … varies by the type of sword and the fighting technique, I’d assume. But that’s exactly why I want the book to specify that detail! It would lend authenticism to a fantasy world if the seasoned warrior gets lost in thought while rubbing that one particularly leathery spot on his hand.
Calluses are something I’ll have to include in Tinder Stricken, since the main character Esha is a manual laborer. She’s been farming for most of her life and even if she doesn’t think much about her own calluses, she’ll probably notice the state of other people’s hands and what that says about them. I could have included calluses in the Stories of Aligare, now that I think about it. Aemet and korvi skin have different properties than human skin — but however tough korvi hide is, it’s nice to think that Peregrine’s hands tell a story of hard work.
And as for me and my day job? I’ll get more interesting marks to go with my knife callus, I’m sure.
- Scars: fictional meaning versus real mundanity
- Why fantasy?
- The Western view of snakes and how I changed it in my spare time
With my love of variety in fantasy literature, I try to experiment with lesser-used mythological creatures. I’ve talked before about the phoenix, that metaphor everyone knows — but few fantasy writers use to full potential. And I’ve dabbled with black dog interpretations ever since I first found out about that interesting little clump of British Isles lore.
Today, I’m here to discuss sirens. You know, those mythical aquatic women who aren’t mermaids?
Originating in Greek mythology and later adopted by the Romans, sirens are supernatural women who sing in enchanting voices. They tempt or hypnotize men, most notably sailors on long, lonely journeys. Sometimes the sirens distract the sailors into crashing their ships; sometimes the lovely singing just lulls the sailors to sleep so the sirens can easily kill them. Either way, it’s a bad outcome for any man enchanted. The first Greek examples of sirens were associated with meadows and earth, but later siren lore had a water connotation — including dangerous, rocky seashores for befuddled sailors to crash their ships onto.
That ocean context sometimes causes sirens to get mixed up with mermaid lore. Nowadays, particularly sexy mermaid artwork is sometimes tagged as a siren. But Greek texts originally described “winged maidens” with bird legs. The siren was sort of like a harpy‘s more attractive sister. Her bird traits represented her beautiful singing voice. An early Christian text also points out that love is a sharp-clawed bird: it “flies and wounds”.
There are also historical artworks of sirens as fish chimeras who look slightly like mermaids. And some artworks where sirens looked like ordinary human women, lounging on rocky seashores. Like most mythological beings, sirens are open to interpretation.
As for me, I grew up hearing a bit about Greek/Roman mythology and its singing sirens. My more memorable siren encounters came in video games. Final Fantasy games and their summoned spirits represent a wide variety of Earth folklore, after all.
But in the modern fantasy genre, siren encounters are fleeting compared to elves, dragons, vampires or werewolves. The siren doesn’t seem to be a mythical creature that gets much thought or reinterpretation. So when I saw the submission call for the Distorted anthology — asking for modern, realistic, or fantastic interpretations of mythology — I thought sirens would be a great subject. Their flexible lore would let me worldbuild. Their built-in themes of love, temptation and punishment would help me make a great story.
I wrote a piece called To Sing Which Tune. It’s about a version of modern Earth where sirens (feather-covered humanoids with gills) have always been friends to humans. They call boats away from danger, and they perform their lovely songs on TV for our entertainment. At least, that’s how it used to be.
Nowadays, the siren population is showing more and more cases of violent dementia, attacking humans unprovoked and with little warning. Marine ornithologist Helen thinks it’s because of toxic chemical buildup in their bodies, a side effect of human pollution. Helen is driven to help all sirens — most of all her lifelong friend, Odyssia. But she might be too late.
To Sing Which Tune is darker than my usual stories, but it was an interesting project and I’m delighted to be included in the anthology! And I’m glad I jumped at this chance to write about beautiful, deadly sirens on a modern seashore.
It won’t be long until Distorted is available for sale! Transmundane Press has put together a collection of short stories about monsters, gods, and mortal struggles. The anthology includes To Sing Which Tune, my story about sirens on modern Earth. It’s a bit darker than my usual works!
Today is cover reveal day — but that’s not all! Reading Addiction Virtual Book Tours also has excerpts of some of the stories, and personal factoids about us contributing authors. And don’t miss the giveaway raffle at the bottom of the post!
Distorted goes on sale November 7th, 2014.
So, here’s something I just thought of. English sci-fi usually refers to its interstellar spacecraft as “space ships”, or “starships”, or something else with “ship” in the name. It’s a commonplace term.
Because it makes sense for humans to root our space travel in the nomenclature of sailing. The Age of Sail was a major formative period in Western history, so modern English still uses sailing idioms like “batten down the hatches”, “know the ropes” and “close quarters”, even though sailing is now a tiny niche of world travel. The vast majority of human cultures use boats in some way, and can relate to the imagery of travelling by wind and water. Sailing has a nostalgic sense of exploration and bold human endeavor. But if we dig a little deeper, sailing also touches on the less pleasant lessons history has to teach us — issues like the soul-sucking conditions of long-haul travel, and the human rights atrocities committed in the Age of Sail. The glamour and the grimness of the Age of Sail make a good blueprint for a space opera.
I was thinking about this while listening to The Picard Song, a Star Trek fanwork that starts with Captain Picard’s stately declaration of, “Here’s to the finest crew in Starfleet.”
Huh, I thought. Starfleet. Like a fleet of ships, in keeping with the nautical theme and the military implications. I wonder if alien races have metaphors like that for their space programs — different metaphors than ours.
And it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t think of any non-human versions of the term “spaceship”. Much as I appreciate Star Trek’s efforts to show non-humans in a dignified light, its alien races always seem to accept the “ship” and “fleet” terminology that humans use. Now, granted, universal translation technology is partly to blame. Of course it’s going to use our most commonly understood nomenclature. But still, I don’t recall any sci-fi media where an alien says, “Oh, you call it a space-[water-going vessel]? My species calls it a space-[something else].”
Why doesn’t that happen? Why don’t we hear other colourful names for spacecraft? Why aren’t there more telling glimpses into alien cultures?
I don’t ask that question directly at Star Trek, of course. That franchise had enough of a struggle on its hands, making its vision palatable to mainstream TV audiences of the 20th century. No, I think this is a question to ask of science fiction in general — and maybe fantasy, too, with its “airships” sailing the skies. Sci-fi made me think of this question, but I firmly believe that a magical non-human can do as much thought-provoking as a hard sci-fi alien.
I mean, what about a race that glorifies farming and plant husbandry? They might call their vessels “space seeds”, since they’re tough little packets of life meant to colonize new lands. Or aliens who see spacecraft as a mimickry of stars and planets, a mortal being’s attempt to fit in with the celestial bodies? Maybe their vessels would be called “hardstars”.
Now, I don’t claim to be aware of every book, TV show and movie ever made — actually, I get through novels pretty slowly for someone who writes them. So I hope there are examples of space not-ships that I’m simply not aware of. This concept just has so much creative potential, I hope it’s being used to add colour to fictional societies.
Do you know of a sci-fi/fantasy series with an interesting name for its spaceships/airships? Share in the comments!
Bird feathers are pretty amazing. They’re the most complex skin outgrowths found on any Earth animal, specialized for everything from basic locomotion to unique courtship displays. But as I’ve been reading in National Geographic and other online articles, the path to modern bird feathers was a long one.
Since Jurassic Park showed us bare-skinned dinosaurs in the 90’s, science has found feathered dinosaur fossils from as early as 124 million years ago. Feathers probably developed from reptile scales, which gradually frayed and enlongated. These early feathers could have been for waterproofing or insulating the body. But even in their early stages, feathers might have been used for courtship. A theropod would have to be in good health to spare metabolic energy on these extraneous growths, so attractive display feathers would have indicated a potential mate.
Over time, those straggly beginnings became a mechanism for gliding. And over even more time, birds’ bones and muscles adapted to allow flapping flight. Some feathered dinosaur fossils have quill-like feathers on all four limbs, suggesting that some species experimented with a four-winged approach. We take sparrows and pigeons for granted when they flap around our cities, but these thriving creatures are the product of millions of years of biological trial and error.
The key to evolution theory is that it’s not a planned march toward perfection. It’s just what happens when life throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and, over thousands of years, figures out what sticks. It’s kind of amazing how many animals have adapted to flinging themselves into the air on flat membranes: giant pterosaurs, insects, squirrels, bats and rainforest frogs. Birds just took a less intuitive, more difficult route. For their trouble, they ended up with a flight method well suited to specialization. Diving falcons, hovering hummingbirds, and albatrosses that can glide for hours are only some of the options. If real live Earth can produce such natural variety — under strict rules of physical efficiency — then I think our sci-fi/fantasy worlds should be even more richly built.
Fond of science fantasy as I am, I think feathers are a great tool for character design and worldbuilding. Korvi, the dragonfolk of the Stories of Aligare, have feathered wings as well as decorative feather manes. (Also, Tijo the mage might have been a deus ex machina in Remedy if I hadn’t inflicted moulting feathers on him. I clipped the character’s wings in an overly literal way!) And in the upcoming Tinder Stricken, phoenixes will use their feathers for flight, communication and more. The real mechanics of a bird’s physiology can make a good grounding element for a story full of magic and lore.
Thinking like this makes me want to see the fossil records of magical creatures. It might be tricky to balance scientific discovery with the faith-driven nature of magic — but wouldn’t it be cool to see the Archaeopteryx-like ancestors of glorious phoenixes? Or how harpies’ bodies changed over millenia? Hey, there’s something I’ve never seen done in a fantasy-type time travel plot: serious archaeology! I’ll add it to my To Write list.
Haven’t made much progress on Tinder Stricken lately. I’m mostly trying to get my head in order.
But I am dabbling more with painting, while trying to get some mental images in place. Here’s a concept piece of a Tselaya Mountain leviathan:
Leviathans are water dragons with overtones of salamander/nudibranch/deep ocean fish. These intelligent, amphibious beings live underground and are rarely seen by humans. I’m thinking leviathans are accustomed to dark, narrow, water-filled spaces. Their sensitive fins and whiskers tell them everything they need to know about the crannies around them.
They have a different headspace than a human, that’s for sure.