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Writing the semi-near future looks hard

My most recent book club book got me thinking about the difficulties of writing science fiction set only about twenty years in the future. If it's set "five minutes from now, with one wild card invention," you can write the world pretty much as it is. If it's set fifty or more years in the future, it's far enough out that any number of changes in society are possible, and most readers won't be around long enough to see whether the book is at all close to the reality anyway and so can treat it as a thought experiment or fantasy.

But about twenty years out is long enough that society ought to have changed, but soon enough that many readers will be around to see them, or will live in that projected "future" year with relatively easy access to the book to compare to reality. And that's tricky.
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possibly the best TV show for when you're stuck on the couch

Thanks to my sister's excellent advice, I signed up for BritBox so I could watch Gardeners' World. I think I would like all my entertainment delivered by soothing British gardeners from now on. I mean, The Irregulars was fun too. But this show somehow offers the closest thing to the uplifting, restorative feeling you get from being in an actual garden while also somehow being really compelling. Learn how magnolias evolved to be pollinated by beetles because bees didn't exist yet that long ago! Also, how do you lay a terrace? What can you do if you only have a tiny front patio or a windowsill? What tools are really handy if you are gardening while using a wheelchair or otherwise unable to bend down or reach too far? How do you explain to a tree which branches it should put more or less energy into growing? How exactly do you take cuttings from different plants? So many ideas for people to try. Also, adorable dogs and cats frequently jump into frame.

This is especially handy right now because I'm recovering from a cold (which I don't even know how I caught, since I barely leave the house these days, but I can catch a cold at a hundred paces through a brick wall, so here I am). For me, even a minor cold means weeks of an irritating reactive cough whenever I move or talk, so I've been spending a lot of time on the couch propped at the exact angle that's easiest on my lungs watching Gardeners' World, and the show is probably more effective than almost all of the cough-soothing remedies I've ever tried. It makes being stuck on the couch relaxing rather than kind of a bummer.

If British people with soothing voices talking about plants and petting cute animals sounds at all appealing to you and you have a way to get ahold of the show, check this one out!

Cookies with Frog and Toad

I haven't read any Frog and Toad since I was about six year old. Based on this short (under four minutes) claymation adaptation of one of their stories, I've been missing out. Look how perfectly they capture the eternal struggle not to binge on cookies in just three lines:

FROG: *puts cookies in box* There. Now we will not eat any more cookies.
TOAD: But we can open the box.
FROG: That is true.

What was that willpower thing you mentioned again, Frog?

Seriously, though, it does an amazing job of introducing a relatable character dilemma, showing the struggle, and resolving it (for a certain value of resolving, anyway) in a way which is very concise but also clear and puts you right in the moment with them. It probably helps that we've all been there, whether it's with cookies or some other food or activity which will have negative effects if we over-indulge, but still. I feel like I should be taking notes on writing technique.

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Appreciating the battles in The Lord of the Rings on a new level

I stumbled upon a blog by a military historian who analyzes pop culture, and his series on the Battle of Helm's Deep and the Siege of Gondor are fascinating. He analyzes both the book and movie versions of the battles (which have some crucial differences). And is fair enough to note that while the movie versions usually make far less sense and have everyone being worse at their jobs, there were often (not always) practical reasons for doing it that way.

The analyses of Saruman's leadership is especially interesting, because he makes some major mistakes in both the books and movies--in exactly the ways you would expect him to, given his character and lack of military command experience. For example, it makes sense for Saruman to see his Uruk-hai as basically fighting machines and plug them into his plan accordingly, without accounting for things like, "Do they have the training to react effectively when something doesn't go according to plan, or when a bunch of guys with spears charge at them on big scary horses?" and "Do they have any reason whatsoever not to break and run when that happens?" Seeing exactly how flawed Saruman's plan and execution were and comparing it to the Witch King's much better performance in the next book makes it clear just how arrogant it was for Saruman to think he could challenge Team Sauron as an equal.

Anyway, these are very long reads, but worth the time!
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Ancillary music

So Ann Leckie has posted about typical Radchaai music and Breq's favorite song and now I am desperately hoping someone will make the Radchaai version of that music video. A tea shop instead of a bar, everyone wearing gloves, the eerie feeling that all the people singing are in fact the same person, sort of...

I should start making a list of fictional music videos someone should create. (We have the technology. We can do it.) This will go on it, along with C-3PO's smash hit "The Virtues of King Solo." Also ancillary shanties, because how could you leave those off the list.

What else should go on the list?

Refusing-to-feel-guilty pleasures: the Sister Fidelma series

There is a lot to like about Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series, but also plenty that is... well, bad. Every time I read one, I am annoyed and wonder if I should just quit reading. Yet I have read about thirty of the damned things, and am almost certainly going to read that new one my library just got an ebook copy of.

And you know, I'm going to try to stop feeling guilty about "wasting" my time like that. Okay, so parts of the books really, really irritate me. But obviously not enough to stop me from liking the good parts, so maybe I can just let myself be at peace with feeling conflicted and read on.

Anyway, in case anyone's curious, this is a historical mystery series set in 7th-century Ireland. Fidelma was born into the royal family of the kingdom of Muman, studied Irish law and qualified to practice (which women were legally allowed to do in Ireland at the time, turns out), and joined a religious house basically because it was a good career move. She teams up with Brother Eadulf the Angle (to his eternal annoyance, everyone keeps calling him a Saxon) at the Synod of Whitby, and they fight crime!

I will skip all of the possible complaints about characterization and such (I could make a few). And the historical arguments, because questions like how many Britons the Saxons and Angles killed vs. assimilated are races I don't have horses in. Tremayne definitely has opinions about things like that, and about whether ancient Ireland and the Celtic Church were way better than their neighbors, but he's so obviously in love with his subject that it's kind of charming. (I might feel differently if I had a stake in the answers.) Besides, given a choice between "society which at least doesn't legally bar you from any professions even if there are still social barriers" vs. "society which absolutely legally bars you from a whole lot," well, the first might not be paradise but I'd probably pick that one.

No, let me warn you about the writing. Characters have way, way too many conversations like this:

"As you know, Bocc, I am the rechtaire, or steward, of this abbey, which means that I am in charge of a lot of stuff."

"Why, yes, I did know that, since I also live here and have known you for years. Also we are speaking ancient Irish, which is my native language, so you didn't need to translate 'rechtaire.' That sure sounded peculiar, randomly repeating yourself like that. Or were you actually giving me the Latin title? I couldn't tell."

"Let's say it's the Latin, for that at least makes more sense than telling you what the word might be in the language of the Saxons as it is spoken fourteen centuries from now. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the tech-screpta, which is the library. I also feel a sudden urge to explain that in our society, children are usually sent to be fostered by another family at the age of seven."

"I know that also, having grown up here and been fostered myself. Why don't you let the narrative voice explain these things? You really are overtaxing yourself, and the readers' suspension of disbelief."

I am only slightly exaggerating.

But on the plus side, the author has an amazing knack for making ancient law sound really compelling. He catches your attention with the more obviously murder-related laws, like how you get compensated with cows (in a set number depending on your status) if your relative is murdered. Ooh, motive to kill a relative and frame someone whose family can pay! Then you get into how a foreign husband's social status depending entirely on his Irish wife puts serious strain on their relationship, because legal inequality is awful even if both parties love each other and don't take advantage of that inequality. And eventually you realize you're going, "Wait, each jurisdiction is required to maintain a hospital where even the poorest can receive care, and there are regulations to make sure is has good ventilation and fresh water? Tell me more!" That's pretty impressive.

Maybe if I pretend I'm just studying the books to see what techniques can make millions of readers interested in obscure points of ancient law, I can finally make the part of my brain that feels guilty for reading them shut up.
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And now for something completely frivolous

I was doing homework or restricted from watching such horrible violent television or something back when Xena: Warrior Princess came out, so I decided to watch a couple of episodes. Only 20 years behind!

I can already see how the Xena/Gabrielle relationship could get really compelling quickly, but it is so hard to focus on that when the show keeps throwing hugely distracting questions at me.

  • Terrible armor or worst armor? It's like she designed it to protect as few vital areas as possible.
  • A circle is a different shape from a boomerang, yes? And circles do not behave like boomerangs under our laws of physics?
  • Did the same people choreograph the fights in this show and Power Rangers? Because I am having vivid, visceral memories of watching Power Rangers for the first time in 20 years.
  • Gabrielle has regular access to maps and the time and literacy to study them for fun? Is she secretly not a peasant at all but a princess in disguise? Or a time-traveling scholar?
  • Maybe it's my low-resolution TV, but it looks like they have doors and scaffolding made of bamboo. What part of Greece is this?

I'm torn, you guys. One the one hand, it's a female buddy road trip with swordfights! On the other hand, so much WTF that I can barely listen to two sentences together without my suspension of disbelief snapping and plummeting into one of those Star Wars-style bottomless pits! What to do?
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Shards of Honor: Let's just leave those guns hanging over the mantelpiece unfired

Reading a review of Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor (here) made me realize I don't think I've ever written up my own reactions to the book.

I first read Shards of Honor about 10 years ago, after reading The Curse of Chalion and The Paladin of Souls and hearing that the Vorkosigan Saga was also great. Out of what I'm sure is a natural instinct for many readers, I started at the internal-chronology beginning, with Shards.

I hated it. And I didn't believe it, which I think is part of what made my reaction so strong--probably irrationally strong, because I'm sure some of the books I love are just as flawed in different ways, but they don't snap suspension of disbelief and stomp it into the ground the way this one does for whatever reasons.Collapse )