10 Books That Have Stuck With Me

I’ve seen this meme (or ones like it) on Facebook, G+ and over at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. I like it. It means a bit more than “favorite,” because sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not.

1. Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny – Lots of firsts here. First Zelazny for me. First real run in with the anti-hero. And Morningstar was the first character I can remember making me ache with a sort of deep, helpless loneliness. “Almost. It’s always almost morning” breaks my heart every time.

2. The Bachman Books by Stephen King – In particular, “Rage” and “The Long Walk,” but mostly “The Long Walk.” These books came in early in my fascination with the human mind pushed to its limits, and what happens afterward.

3. IT by Stephen King – Like him or hate him, you can’t claim that King doesn’t have a way with memorable imagery. IT was probably too long, but it did a lot of things right. He captured childhood very well, both the energy and the isolation. IT itself evokes the fear of the unknown very well. And of course, poor Georgie. “We all float down here.”

4. Heinlein Juveniles – They sort of clump together in my mind. Not the storylines, but the experience of reading them. They definitely had a strong impact on me as a kid, some in what I now consider to be negative ways (Starship Troopers) and others in more positive ones (Have Space-suit, Will Travel).

5. The Handmaid’s Tale  by Margaret Atwood – Hopelessness. Totalitarianism. Fear of religion and government. Beautiful language. This book really has it all.

6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury –  My first dystopia. This book helped me to learn that I have an existential horror of ignorance, particularly willful ignorance and destruction of knowledge. Montag’s impossible choice, to turn away from everything he knows or continue doing something he has realized is wrong, fascinates me.

7. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Truly a marvelously crafted book, and it plays into my fascination with distrust of authority. Other themes, such as doing the right thing even though it’s hopeless, also resonate with me.

8. Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford – This book is beautifully written, and also deals intimately with a lot of the themes of childhood. Changing but being afraid to change. Strangely overlapping inclusion and isolation. The feeling that one’s parents are both vital but also alien. In addition, Ford’s consideration of the effects of extraterrestrial living on the everyday reality of life is exhaustive and fascinating.

9. Iron and Silk my Mark Salzman – The only memoir that I would say really “stuck with me.” Salzman’s story of his trip to China to teach English is fascinating. Salzman is an American who has studied Chinese and China, studied Chinese martial arts, and plays the cello. His frustrations with the bureaucracy, making friends, experiences of Chinese home life, and his studies with martial arts teachers paint a complex and living picture of life in China in the 1980s.

10. Stone Monkey: An Alternative, Chinese-Scientific, Reality by Bruce Holbrook – I partly fibbed in #9. There are memoir aspects of Stone Monkey. The value in this book wasn’t the specifics so much as the approach to thinking, and the concept of polar-completeness as an alternative to binary or extreme/spectrum thinking. It’s also interesting from the point of view of an outsider learning about another culture and way of thinking.

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Calling All Aspiring Authors – Charity and Critique, rolled into one!

Over at Pat Rothfuss’ blog, they’re auctioning off critiques (some with editing) by a variety of publishing professionals. People donating their time and brains range from agents to authors to professional editors.

If you’ve got a manuscript that needs some love, or will have one in the near future, you should definitely check it out, and maybe lay down a couple of bucks for Heifer International.

Literature and the Single Dad

I was a single dad this weekend. My wife and daughters had gone on a mini-vacation with some friends to a cabin up north by the Canadian border, leaving me and my eight year old son home together. He didn’t want to go, and I just didn’t feel like making a 12 hour round trip in a car to hang out with people I hang out with at home.

As father-son time goes, we had a pretty good weekend. It was cold and gray for much of the time, so we didn’t do much outside. We went to the movies, had some good food, watched TV and played games.

I had thought I might get a decent amount of writing done this weekend as well, when Sean and I weren’t actively doing something together. It didn’t work that way. It seemed like every time I would get my concentration focused, I was needed. I was on the hook to answer questions, give advice, help out with tough spots on games, and generally be the dad. My concentration would be broken, I’d be out of “the zone,” and the process would have to start again. My writing output for the weekend was a big fat zero.

There are other writers with whom I interact who are full or part time single parents. There are others who are part of a parenting pair, but who are the primary caregivers. I really have to respect what they accomplish. At eight, my son is in a pretty good age for this sort of thing. He’s no longer young enough that he needs constant watching and hands-on attention. He’s young enough that he’s not yet a social butterfly, or engaged in half a dozen extracurricular activities. But even so, it was difficult to arrange writing around him. With a toddler, or a fifteen year old, it would have been insane.

So for all you single moms and dads out there, trying to write your book and be a good parent at the same time, I salute you. You have a tough row to hoe.

To my darling wife, who goes out of her way to make sure I get time to write: Thank you, sweetheart. I always knew I wouldn’t be able to do it without you. Now I know it even better.

Normally I’d have tried to get writing done after he was in bed, but I had to work a lot of off hours support this weekend. Nothing unexpected, but it made my late night availability spotty.

The Apprentice Progress: 41,983

Restructuring, and Doing a Flyby on the Magical Minority

Since my 1000 words for “Among the Rubble” on Friday, I’ve been a busy word-weasel. I put down another 3,140 words for The Apprentice, and spent a lot of time thinking about how it’s structured and if that needs to change.

First of all, I decided I’ve given the primary antagonist organization short shrift. There’s a lot of potential there for plot awesomeness, so I am going to rewrite that portion. Their point of view character’s arrival on the scene will remain the same, but I think I’ll delay the introduction of the second character, and have some story take place on their home turf.

I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s just about perfect for me. It’s short, so I can fit it in wherever, and it’s about writing more than it’s about books. It also features a comic writer and a novelist that I like. They recently had Maurice Broaddus on, and the focus was on “writing the other.” I paid special attention here because as my main character is a woman, so I’m writing the Other already. One of the tropes that got discussed was the “Magical Negro” character. This is a minority character (usually black) whose sole purpose is to act as a mentor and help the (usually white) protagonist solve her problems. It’s a lazy way to write, and it tends to play on cultural stereotypes. This character is frequently the only minority in an all white cast. After he imparts his knowledge to the protagonist, he disappears (or dies messily). Similar concepts are the Noble Savage who teaches the character about the strength of native or primitive ways, and the font of Ancient Oriental Wisdom.

Huh. My main character has a Chinese mentor. He’s the only major Asian character I have planned at this time. Crap, have I created a Magical Asian to hold my white girl’s hand?

I don’t like that idea. For one thing, the mentor character was originally the main character when this story idea started to form. I have more invested in him, mentally, than a convenient mouthpiece. He may come back later as a main character of his own story – but that’s not going to help much if I make a crappy mistake in this one, is it?

A bit of background: when I started laying out how I wanted magic to work, I realized that my idea on the gathering and direction of magical energy was similar to qi manipulation concepts I’d been taught during taijiquan and qigong instruction by several people. So, what better than a Chinese protagonist that learned these exact lessons, but knew what they were really for! But then I decided I liked the idea of a “babe in the woods” sort of character better (after a stop in a Kurasawa-esque telling of a story about the Master Mage from the POV of his apprentice). Wei Chi had already taken on a serious life as a skilled mage in my mind, plus I wanted him to be old and have some ties into the historical difficulties of the Unequal Treaties, the Opium Wars, etc. But I didn’t want to write a historical novel on my first trip out of the gate. And someone in his sphere of influence would have too much ready-to-go support structure for what I was envisioning. But I like the character, his attitude, and his background, so I decided to leave him in the place of the master mage in the cast.

So, had I haphazardly relegated this character of which I’d grown so fond to the position of Magical Asian Helper? I did some more digging around to be sure I understood the trope, and took a good hard look at my planned storyline.

  1. Magical Minority Characters (MMC) are happy to help the main character because it’s right, or nice, or out of obligation – Well, I am safe on this one. Wei Chi isn’t a bad sort, and when he realizes that the victim he saved from a horrible murder had more damage done to her than being cut up a little, he’ll offer to help out a little. Basically, a trinket that will keep hostiles from realizing she has magical potential so she can live her life. But in order to take her as an apprentice, he’ll have to be convinced, and he’ll expect something in return.
  2. MMCs have no agenda of their own beyond helping the protagonist – This one’s my primary concern. Wei Chi has plenty of objectives of his own, but I’m not sure how feasible it is to bring them into the story. They don’t intersect with the protagonist’s agenda much at all, beyond the ones tied into her apprenticeship. On the other hand, the vehicle of the apprenticeship can be used to give some insight into what Wei Chi is up to when he’s not helping Our Heroine.
  3. MMCs disappear when their service to the protagonist is done – Definitely not a problem. I think he and the main character will come to like one another enough that their mentor/mentee relationship will continue beyond the initial “here’s what you need to not kill yourself or those around you” stage. He’s also an active presence in the Twin Cities magical subculture, such as it is. His involvement won’t be huge, because as a much more skilled practitioner, it would be too easy for him to take center stage and deal with Zoe’s problems for her. I have some ideas for other books in this setting, and his involvement in those would be larger, either as a part of the primary cast or as the main character.
  4. MMCs are frequently the only minority character in an all-white cast – He’s not the only minority, though at the time I started looking into this he was the only Chinese character I had planned. But I have thought of a few more ways to take care of that issue, if I feel it needs it.
  5. MMCs are frequently built of out racial stereotypes – I think the fact that Wei Chi started his life as a protagonist and has a detailed background makes this less of a pitfall for me. I wasn’t interested in writing a pack of stereotypes, or even classic tropes, so I have a good list of quirks, personality traits and the like for him. He does own an Asian import store, which made me think of the inscrutable guy from Gremlins even as I was writing it. It’s in keeping with his history and it’s practical for his present needs, so I’ve decided to leave it.

In the end, I think I’m doing okay. I’ll be running it past other people once I have it written, so they can sanity check me as well. I definitely created a situation where I could have fallen into that trap if I didn’t take the time to think about it.

Fellow writers, have you ever found yourself stumbling into this trope? What did you do to avoid it?

Fellow readers, what are some examples of this trope that you love to hate, or that work in spite of themselves?

A More Diverse Universe, and Engraved on the Eye

I’m way late for this party, but you should know if you don’t already: a group of bloggers has organized a blog tour event to celebrate and raise awareness of minority authors in speculative fiction. It’s called A More Diverse Universe, and you can read the gritty deets over at BookLust. I didn’t find out in time to sign up to be on the list, but the concept is pretty simple. Read a work of speculative fiction by a minority author and review it.

Though my participation is unofficial, I want to draw your attention to Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed. I read that earlier this week, and it was a blast. Saladin is an Arab American from Detroit, and this perspective gracefully informs his fiction. I had already read Throne of the Crescent Moon, so I knew I was in for something good.

So, here’s my review of Engraved on the Eye, originally posted in my Goodreads account.

This collection of short stories offers a departure from the usual science fiction and fantasy fare. Saladin Ahmed brings his unusual (for sf/f) viewpoint as a practicing Muslim and Arab American to the party and serves up a delicious buffet of refreshing stories.

The stories vary pretty widely. There is the tale of the first case in which the characters Adoulla Makhslood and Raseed (from Throne of the Crescent Moon) work together. Another story set in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms deals with the internal politics of the Lodge of Dervishes. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the story of a cybernetically augmented Lebanese soldier trying to keep his wife alive in a post-war world. There is also a historical fantasy set during the Abbasid Caliphate. One story is set in a secondary world and gives just enough detail about it to be intriguing.

My personal favorite is “Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride.” It’s a Western starring people you don’t see often in Western stories. Mister Hadj and the narrator (O’Connor) are working as bounty hunters on the trail of some seriously bad men. Mr Hadj, an immigrant from the same area as O’Connor’s Pa, has a knack for making things happen when he sings. How it all plays out is more than I care to share here.

Engraved on the Eye at Amazon.com
Throne of the Crescent Moon at Amazon.com

So, there you have it. An excellent book by a talented new author. Please visit the links above, and check it out. Visit Saladin’s site and take a peek at his blog and twitter. In addition to being a good author, he’s a pretty droll Tweep.

For most of my life, I haven’t paid that much attention to the details of the people writing the books that I liked. Because of that, sheer statistics meant I ended up mostly reading books by Caucasian men. But as I have gotten older, and started paying more attention, I have come to appreciate the differences (some subtle, some less so) that arise from reading an author of a different background. That’s one very good reason to support an event like A More Diverse Universe.

Another is that those statistics can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We mostly have white writers is SF, so white writers get more sales. Add in people avoiding non-white authors for racist reasons, and the disparities get bigger. Then the money-driven corporate machine looks at those numbers, confuses cause and effect, and decides that white writers are the way to go. So they buy fewer books from non-white writers, spend less on marketing for the ones they do buy, etc. And the snake eats its own tail. (This assumes that the companies is question are not racially motivated themselves, which I can neither confirm or deny, but you can see the obvious additional problems that would cause.)

Once we create a machine that minimizes the diversity of viewpoints, we narrow our scope of people that will identify closely. Or we annoy members of the groups being marginalized. And so our SF fandom and pool of future writers doesn’t grow the way it should.

So, friends and neighbors, what SF books by minority authors have you read recently? How did you like them? I’m always open to new recommendations!

It’s been a good couple of days to be a writer.

Sunday and Monday I got some really solid work done on the manuscript.

Sunday: 709 words
Monday: 2,899 words

3,518 words it two days. I’d like to say I foresee keeping that pace up, but it’s just not that likely. Still, that puts me at a total of 23,299. I’ll take it.

Click to view daily statistics

Cory Doctorow follows in Orwell's footsteps

I just finished reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. It is a Young Adult novel, but I really enjoyed it, and would recommend it for anyone interested in computers, cryptography, freedom, or security.

A quick summary of the setup: Malcolm and his friends are ditching school to hunt down clues in an internet scavenger hunt. Disaster strikes the city of San Francisco and they are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security on suspicion of being involved. The DHS tramples all over the kids’ liberties, and after they are released starts doing the same to the city. The people of the city are too shaken by the tragedy to object, so Malcolm and some of his friends begin to fight back through encryption and other tech means.

Little Brother paints a grim but believable picture of a “day after tomorrow” America where fear has been allowed to trump freedom and sense. It’s a well written piece of work, and stands as a cautionary tale about the direction that some people would have my country go in order fight its “war on terror.” If George Orwell had written a book about the events that lead to the eventual domination of England by IngSoc, I imagine it might have started something like this.

Give this book a read. If you don’t want to pay for it, you can download it, freely and legally, from Mr. Doctorow’s website, linked above. If you like it, there is a list of teachers who want copies for their classrooms where you can donate. I plan to buy a hardcopy version for my girls (they don’t have their own PDAs yet).