Thursday, 31 January 2013

WEIRD Education

(WEIRD series introductionIndustrialisation; Riches; Democracy; Conclusion)

Okay, it's time (finally) to pick up this thread
. In that introduction to this series, I explained Jürgen Habermas' argument that human rights conflict with cultural relativism, and used it to justify, in principle, the idea of prescribing certain values as universal for all humans (indeed, all sentients, or at least all sophonts). I offered up the WEIRD quartet - Education, Industrialisation, Richness and Democracy - as possible examples, making the bold claim that I could defend their universal application.

Well, here goes. I'm starting with education because I think it's easiest to explain both the pitfalls and the ultimate defence of the topic, and it will set up quite nicely the pattern I'm going to follow throughout this series. I'm going to draw a distinction between how we actually practice education in Western culture today (and how we have practiced it for the last couple of hundred years), and what I see as the essence of the value; the latter being far more appealing than the former.

The problem with our 'old' concept of education (sadly, still prevalent today) is that it is focussed on the provision of information. For most of history, education has consisted of identifying some group of facts as important and then trying to get children to remember those facts. This becomes immensely problematic when trying to compare education between cultures - which culture should decide on what group of facts is important? Different cultures are going to advocate very different groups of facts, particularly cultural and historical facts.

Literacy and language present a great example. We can say that (with the exceptions of the authors of religious texts), Shakespeare is the most-studied and most culturally significant literary figure in history, and that therefore all people should learn about Shakespeare, but this ignores the fact that Shakespeare's prominence is really just the prominence of anglocentric culture. To force Brazillian or Kenyan children to study Shakespeare on these grounds is rampant cultural imperialism.

But you can't teach language without teaching some literature (much though my teenage self wished to deny this fact). An understanding of the relationship between literature and language is essential to seeing language as a feature of social context, rather than just words and grammar rules. So what literature should we prescribe the teaching of, if we are to universally teach literature?

The answer is to take as a principle of universal education that children should be literate, but say that the teaching should be adapted to teach culturally-relevant literature. There's no use in teaching Shakespeare to Brazilian children whose first language is Portuguese, even translated into Portuguese (for more on the idea of teaching literacy in culturally-sensitive ways, there's no better source than the work and methodology of Paulo Freire).

And there's a hint in here of the broader point. It's an entirely legitimate question to ask why we should hold the teaching of literacy as universally important. The answer is that someone who is not literate cannot evaluate, critically analyse and engage with the products of literate culture - and I mean 'culture' here in the broadest sense, including laws, government reports and so on. A person who is not literate is incapable of defending himself effectively against things that are written down, because he cannot know what has been written down.

I'm being a little melodramatic, but the idea of defense is key. There's a huge wealth of behaviourist psychological research showing how human beings can be conditioned and indoctrinated by authority figures; the ability to question authority, therefore, is an essential part of the freedom to be self-determined, and this goes just as much for the values authority imposes as for the figures of authority doing the imposing.

At the core of my concept of education, then (and, indeed, at the core of the concept of education that is now widely taught in teaching courses - for which critical pedagogy provides an excellent framework) are two ideas, the key traits that I consider to be the essence of being educated:

- The awareness that there are many conflicting values in the world.
- The ability to critically analyse values and choose among them for oneself.

It should be obvious that a person who is actually equipped with these two traits will be (in principle) immune to indoctrination and thus to cultural imperialism. Obviously, nobody can be expected to have a perfect record in these fields - I certainly don't - because there are all sorts of people in the world working to indoctrinate us in ever more sophisticated ways, but the more critical we are, the safer we are from indoctrination.

The final point to be made is that this concept of education is entirely self-defending. If we promote being educated (in this way) as a value, then anyone who is so educated will be capable of deciding for themselves whether or not to adopt the value of education, and repudiate it if they want to. Obviously, this is a level of self-awareness that is very difficult to teach or train, but we can hold it up as the ultimate goal.

I would also argue that without the awareness that one's values are a choice from among many, one cannot really be said to hold those values correctly, but only by blind faith (any holding of values is an act of faith; but no faith should be blind). As such, education thus construed is the ultimate universal value, because it is a necessary condition of the having of any values at all.

* * *

Some tangential remarks about the old concept of education while I'm here; fundamentally, at the start of the 20th century, the concept of education used more or less globally was that born from the English public school. These were institutions whose express principles, principles understood and recognised by almost everyone involved, parents, teachers and pupils alike, are almost diametrically opposed to the principles I suggest in this blog.

The principles of the English public school were authority, hierarchy and conformity; they existed, in essence, to prepare the children of the British elite for their work as the officers and officials of the British Empire. This included a degree of indoctrination in views like the inferiority of non-white races, the importance of obedience to one's superiors, and so on.

Fortunately, slowly, this concept is being wiped out (though ask me sometime about my experiences in a turn-of-the-21st-century English public - which actually means 'private' - school). In the educational studies lectures I work in as an amanuensis, concepts of critical pedagogy and the teaching of independence are emphasised.

Be very wary of anyone trying to defend the 'old' concept or denounce the new (as for example, in the decision by the Texas Republican Party to include a plank in its 2012 platform that discouraged the teaching of critical thinking skills). The only reason to support the old concept is if you want to be able to indoctrinate pupils rather than teaching them.

Monday, 28 January 2013

High Drama (part 2)

Remember this? I do occasionally come back and tie off loose ends...

In that blog post, I talked about a problem that arises when we try to define 'fantasy' as a genre; specifically, that it's hard to pick out the essential component of something being 'fantasy', when stories with fantastical trappings - dragons, swords, magic etc. - can vary from A Song of Ice and Fire to The Lord of the Rings to The Lies of Locke Lamora and all the way back again.

I phrased this in terms of a concept drawn from video game theory, the concept of a core aesthetic - defined as the underlying emotional reason that we go to a particular genre or category within a form. A core aesthetic is, ultimately, the experience we go to a work of art in search of. Today, I plan to outline what I think the core aesthetic of fantasy (literature) is.

First, though, two things it's not. In the first part of this post, I linked to this video, which outlines the theory of core aesthetics in videogame genres. Now, they actually offer a definition of fantasy as it applies to videogames, which is that fantasy is vicarity - fantasy, in videogames, is what allows you to become something you are not; a soldier, or a gangster, or a pilot etc. etc.

That works very well for videogames, but it's much harder to do in literature. Because when reading you don't have control over the choices that the characters make, it's very rare to find fantasy literature which involves fantasy in this sense. There is a degree of vicarity, to be sure, in our enjoyment of the heroic and exciting deeds of protagonists in all genres, but in literature I think vicarity is the province primarily of horror and (erotic) romance, which are the most visceral, experiential forms of writing - the genres most focussed on making you feel what the characters are feeling.

But, intuitively, lots of things that are quite definitely 'fantasy' aren't primarily about vicarious enjoyment - there's no better example than A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. No-one's getting any pleasure from vicariously living in that world (okay, psychopaths notwithstanding). Similarly, there are things that intuitively don't seem to be fantasy which are deeply vicarious - the aforementioned erotic romance, for example.

So vicarity doesn't make a good definition of fantasy. Quite separately, we need to make clear the distinction between 'fantasy' and 'magical realism'. Tempting though it is to uphold Terry Pratchett's charming quip that magical realism is 'like a polite way of saying you write fantasy', there is a key difference, and it's an illuminating one to discuss.

In essence, the difference is this: in a magical realist story, when the ghost or spirit or monster or whatever turns up, no-one worries too much about why, or how it works, or what the logic that governs its behaviour should be. No-one pays any attention to the system of the magic.

In fantasy, however, one key element is showing that there is some system to the magic. So, whereas in a magical realist story, a ghost would just be a character who was dead, when I wrote Heaven Can Wait, my fantasy novel about a ghost (which is coming back soon, I fervently hope), the story explored the mechanics of being a ghost and the spiritual implications of life after death just as much as the character dynamics of the protagonist trying to relate to the life he'd left behind (which would be the sole focus in magical realism).

That's not to exclude fantasy stories where the magic isn't what we call 'rules-based'. Heaven Can Wait is a rules-based magic story; what this means is that the reader should be able to figure out and sometimes predict things the magic system makes possible before they actually appear on-page (in fact, the very best rules-based magic systems will leave the reader thinking about all the cool things you can do with magic which there wasn't time to fit into the book). The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, doesn't have rules-based magic. Tolkein never explains how Gandalf's powers relate to or differ from those of the One Ring, for example.

But The Lord of the Rings definitely is fantasy, not magical realism. Why? Because things we know about the magic itself - that the ring is corrupting, that it must be destroyed to curb the power of Sauron - are significant to the plot. Put simply, there is a relation between character and setting which is essential to fantasy but not essential to magical realism.

Therein lies the key. Fantasy is about what fantastical settings allow you to do with characters, not in general (because other genres, like sci-fi, horror and magical realism also rely on setting-character interactions) but in respect of a particular core aesthetic, which I call high drama.

By high drama, I mean a particular feeling you get at the climax of a fantasy novel. Think about Frodo and Sam as they stand on the edge of the precipice in Mount Doom, as Frodo finally succumbs to the Ring's power. (Those of you who've read the final volume of the Wheel of Time, think about Rand at Shayol Ghul - this is probably the best possible example of what I'm talking about, but slightly less well-known as yet than the climax of LotR).

It's that moment where the whole world hangs in the balance of one character's decision; that is high drama. It puts the character under a microscope, shows you how all the stresses of a lifetime can shape morals and wisdom. It can be achieved any number of ways, in the everyman who finds a lost artefact of power (Frodo), or the destined hero who faces up to the ultimate trial (Rand in the Wheel of Time), or the crook who stumbles over a sinister plot (Jimmy the Hand in Raymond Feist's Riftwar trilogy), or the ruler who faces up to the corruption of her government and/or nation (Mara in Feist and Janny Wurts' Kelewan trilogy) and so on.

The heart of the matter, and the reason genre fantasy books and series end up so long, is that to give that one moment of decision weight, you have to feel the character's life adding up to it. Whatever the reputation of the genre for shallow, stereotypical characters, when done right it is more character-focussed than any other form of literature.

I can't think of a fantasy story that I've read that didn't supply this core aesthetic. I can think of books with magic in, some of them very fine (Balthasar's Oddysey by Amin Maalouf, arguably), which don't do this, but they don't feel like fantasy to me. Dragons, swords, stupid character names and hypersexualised she-demons (naming no names, Cersei Lannister) have nothing to do with it.

(Addendum: I realised after writing this post that high drama doesn't have to be reserved entirely for the climax of an entire series - there can be other moments of high drama in a series, as for example at the climax of season 1 of The Second Realm or even, arguably, in the red pill/blue pill choice in The Matrix. It's still that sense that everything we know about the character has a part to play in this crucial decision that he/she is making. I might need to do a full post expanding on this point at some later date; there isn't space to do it justice here.)

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Second Realm 4.2: The Sins of the Brother

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The Rabbit Hole

2. The Sins of the Brother

One glance at the wreckage of New Vessit took the wind right out of Pevan’s sails.

Hardly a building remained standing, and only a single mast bobbed at the wharf beyond. The town had been driftwood from the waist up anyway, but most of the houses had bits of their stonework missing as well as a pile of smashed timber where their roofs and walls should have been. The packed grit of the broad, cold street was spotted here and there with smaller debris, mainly clothing. Vessit was poor by the standards of the South, disorganised and fragile by the standards of the North. She hoped Federas had fared better.

She’d left Chag sleeping off the panic that had seized him during the quake. He’d barely been coherent when she dragged him into the hidey-hole she’d found, in the basement of a long, low building near the shorefront, in the old city. Hopefully he wouldn’t wake up while she was gone – he’d be hopeless if he did.

Early in the morning as it was, the road was deserted. The Realm hadn’t flattened out until the small hours, and probably at that point most of the townsfolk had collapsed from exhaustion where they stood. Lost and alone with Chag in the dark ruins of the old city, Pevan had certainly wished to do something similar.

A stiff spring breeze brought the sea’s cold whistling through the side-alleys and up her sleeves. She’d had to leave too much of their gear stranded up a tower-block to flee the quake, and when she’d tried to get back there, she’d run into a total block. Strong as she might be in her Gift, she couldn’t make a Gateway to a wall that was no longer there. Probably it, and their packs, were pulverised rubble on an old tarmac road surface somewhere.

For warmth, she broke into a jog, past the wreckage of house after house. Her legs weren't happy about running, and the grit of the road felt far too rough underfoot, but she held to the jog as long as she could. Morbid curiosity rose in her, surprisingly powerful. Were there corpses in some of those houses? She cast the thought aside, but kept her ears open. If someone called for help, it was help she could offer, perhaps better than anyone else nearby.

Some of the houses had weathered the quake better than others. Most, at least, looked more salvageable than those right on the outskirts of town. She passed a couple where walls had clearly fallen against each other, the woodwork light enough to stay upright rather than snapping under its own weight. On the other hand, one plot was a charred heap, a soot-blackened tin bath the only thing to show that the ring of stones had been a house the previous day.

Even knowing that this was a poor region, with no natural timber and little but the sea to provide food, the state of the architecture was troubling. The nearest Sherim to Vessit was almost a hundred miles away. Besides feeding themselves, what did they do with their time, if not build decent houses?

After a couple of minutes, Pevan slowed back to a stiff walk, letting her breath recover. Ahead, a boy of about her own age, sandy hair sticking out at all angles, emerged from behind a house that looked more or less intact. He walked slowly, feet shuffling, head down. Concussed, perhaps, or at least in shock. She didn’t blame him.

She called, "Excuse me!" and broke into a run again for a few steps. The boy stopped and seemed to wake up, standing straighter and squaring his shoulders as he turned to face her. He was skinny, scrawny even, still unmistakably a teenager. She’d expected Vessit’s youth to be thick-set, trawlermen types. His coat hung slack on him, slim fingers protruding from too-long cuffs.

He managed a fair impression of a sailor’s gruff response to a stranger, though. "Who are you?" His voice was harsh, clearly worn from his fair share of shouting.

"Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas," she answered briskly, preparing to get bossy if she needed to. Growing up under Dora's eye was a masterclass in certain things. "I'm looking for your Four Knot."

He flinched. "Um, she's at the Sherriff's." When he wasn't trying to sound hostile, his voice was light and a little weedy. She could still hear the tiredness in it. He pointed back the way he'd come. "Over there, the one with the blue door. But, uh... maybe you should wait a bit. He didn't survive." The boy looked down at his hands, then swallowed and pressed his fist to his mouth.

"The Sherriff? I'm sorry." And she was, too, even if a part of her was cursing the delay. She reached over and squeezed his shoulder. "I felt the quake on my way. It was bad here?" Stupid question, really, but she needed to be able to talk to the locals if she was going to find Rel.

The lad shrugged, tucked his chin down to his chest, and covered his eyes. His voice a sob, he said, "We thought he might make it, if he could just survive the night. But... I dunno."

Something in his stance cut through Pevan’s impatience. Automatically, she gathered him into a hug. It was what she'd needed most when Temmer had died. The boy shook, but didn't resist. How close had he been to the Sherriff? He seemed too young and fragile to be a guardsman, which meant he was probably a relative. His head felt like a furnace against her shoulder.

It didn't take him as long as she'd expected to pull himself together. He straightened, rubbed his eyes on the back of his hand and sniffled. When he looked up at her - they were the same height, really, but he just seemed shorter - his eyes, though red, were intent, direct. "Why are you here? What brings you to Vessit?" Maybe he was a guard, after all.

"I'm looking for my brother. Relvin?" She stepped back, let him stand on his own. Let him work, stop him dwelling. "He came here a while back and we haven't heard anything from him."

The lad's face darkened. "The Clearseer? The, um, the Wildren were holding him, but he got away... yesterday? Maybe the day before. We were out looking for him when the quake hit." His eyes flickered across her face. "Maybe I had better take you to Wolpan."

Inwardly, Pevan breathed a sigh of relief. The boy hadn’t heard of her, didn’t know the role she’d played in Rel’s release. Something trickled cold through her gut as she thought through what might have happened if he had known. She could handle the boy, but the townsfolk were her only potential lead on Rel. Fortunately, her face had fallen blank, rather than tensing. The lad’s frown spoke of clearer perception than a boy his age had any right to. Voice steady – another legacy from Dora – Pevan said, "I can find my own way, if you're needed elsewhere..."

He shook his head and swallowed. "I should be getting back. I just... needed some fresh air. But I should be in the meeting anyway."


"Yeah, Wolpan wanted to speak to the whole squad. About..." He paused, a puzzled frown on his face. Then he stuck out his hand. "Sorry, I'm Atla. I'm a Guide. Um, up from Lefal for training."

That explained it. He didn't look local, but he called the Four Knot by her first name. Rel hadn't spoken highly of Wolpan, but she sounded like the kind of person who'd rub him the wrong way. Pevan broke off that train of thought, trying not to let his judgement lean on hers. Atla was still staring at her expectantly, something pointed in his regard. Playing it blithely, she shook his hand. "Lefal... that's down South somewhere, right?"

"Um, more East from here." He gave an awkward chuckle. "But I guess it all seems like the South to you, right?" His hand lingered on hers a bit longer than felt right, but she nodded as amicably as she could. He mumbled something, then started to walk back towards the side-street he'd indicated. "Come on."

She fell into step with him. The Sherriff's office, when she looked ahead, was obvious. It was the only stone-built place on the road, still intact though the remains of a wooden porch were piled beside the blue door, and what looked like an old sail had been thrown across the roof, probably covering quake damage.

As they approached, the door opened and four figures stepped out. Three women and a man. The woman in the lead was speaking, loudly, but the wind took the definition out of her words. Probably the Four Knot. Vessit had a female Clearseer, Pevan knew, and one of the other two had to be the Guide responsible for Atla's training. The last would be a Warder, in all likelihood. Probably the man. He had the doughty physique of a blacksmith, a mite less windswept and wild than a seaman.

It was the shortest of the women who spotted her and Atla walking up, and waved. Pevan quickened her pace, then slowed again as Atla failed to match her. He was staring at the ground, his step reduced to a shuffle. She rolled her eyes. "Come on, they're waiting for us."

The boy looked up, face pale, but at least he did start moving again. She half expected to see his bottom lip trembling. Mind you, from the look on Wolpan's face, he might have some reason for fear. The Four Knot looked like she'd been chewing rocks.

Better to lead by example. Pevan strode ahead, heard Atla's boots pattering on the road as he hastened to catch up. The four Gifted had stopped talking to watch her approach; her step hitched as their attention landed on her. She took a deep breath and fixed her eyes on Wolpan. This was a conversation she could not afford to lose control of.

"Good morning." She nodded to the Four Knot, whose glare didn't waver. Pevan offered her hand to shake. "I'm Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas. Sorry, I know this is a bad time for me to show up."

Wolpan left her hanging. "Relvin's sister." There was no ambiguity in her tone; she thought anyone connected to Rel was bad news.

"Is he still here?" Pevan narrowed her eyes slightly. Wolpan's stare was barely a shadow of Dora's, but Pevan was tired and the sea breeze was stiff. "Atla said he'd gone, but I need to catch up with him. I'll be out of your hair as quickly as I can."

"Your brother is an escaped criminal, and this town wants a reckoning from him." Wolpan folded her arms as Pevan lowered her hand back to her side.

She had to be careful not to give too much away. Trying to buy a little time, she swallowed. Her throat was a little too tight to try playing the innocent card. Instead, she frowned. It wasn't hard to summon up exasperation. "Criminal? What did he do this time?"

That, at least, seemed to crack Wolpan's hostility, just a touch. Pevan tried to put on a face that said you’ve only had to deal with him for a month, I’m seventeen. When the Four Knot spoke, though, her voice was still hot and harsh. "Look around you. All this is his fault."

Wolpan waved her hand at the ruins, and Pevan’s gut clenched. For a moment, she struggled for words, to try to say otherwise, but the Four Knot was right, probably more right than she knew. What could Pevan say to that?

"Be fair, Wolpan." The man spoke up. Atla had gone to stand behind his shoulder, so maybe he was the Guide. He looked like a Warder, though. Guides were normally smaller. He spared a quick, weak smile for Pevan, keeping his voice cool and benign. "The Clearseer played a part, to be sure, but we don't know what happened down there yesterday."

Pevan, who did know, bit her tongue and looked down at her hands. She tried to encompass the whole squad with her shrug. "He's always been reckless. I'm sorry for his part in this. We really need him back in Federas, though. We can't afford to be without a Clearseer."

"The boy's a liability," Wolpan spat.

"That's uncalled for." The tiny woman spoke up. She barely came up to Pevan's chin, but her eyes were wide and attentive, the set of her face intent but not hostile. Up close, everything about her screamed 'Clearseer'. When she turned to glare at Wolpan, the roundness went out of her cheeks. "The poor girl's not her brother. Didn't their Four Knot come here with him, too?"

Pevan looked around the group again. The third woman - she had to be the Warder, though she looked a little precious for that role - slouched with her arms folded, a lopsided frown broadcasting her scepticism. The Guide and Atla both offered Pevan sympathetic looks, but Wolpan held their attention.

Well, at least they weren't all trying to melt her the way Wolpan was. Pevan said, "Not technically, but Dora's replacement wasn't properly trained before she left."

"A habit Federas could do with getting out of." Wolpan actually sneered at her.

Pevan tensed, heat rushing through her. What did a provincial Four Knot know about the North, and-

She held herself back, remembering how Dora would deal with Rel. A deep breath let her relax enough to get her voice back down and level. "Really? That's a cheap shot, Four Knot. If you want rid of me that badly, just tell me where Rel went." She turned, deliberately moving her feet around so that she had her shoulder to the Four Knot. It wasn’t good politics, but it was the best she was going to manage. Hopefully her cheeks were rosy enough from the cold to hide the hot shame flooding her veins.

The snub stunned Wolpan enough that the Clearseer got in first. "We don't know where he's gone. You can appreciate he's not been top of our priority list since he got away. We've not heard from any of the Wildren who were holding him, either."

"Actually, Ton said he thought he saw a Wilder heading East at speed after the quake last night, with a couple of bodies in tow." The Warder spoke up, her voice prim and high.

A lump of ice settled in Pevan's gut. "Bodies?" Shame vanished, taking its heat with it. If anything could kill Rel, it would be two Gift-Givers.

"Could have just been carrying them so they could travel faster," the Clearseer said, quickly. "I've seen Wildren do that before." She reached over, past Wolpan, to pat Pevan on the shoulder. "Our Sherim's about four days' travel East. She might have taken your brother to the Court for trial."

That certainly made sense. She couldn't think why Taslin might cart Rel's corpse all the way to the Second Realm, but that didn't mean much. At least it gave her a lead to follow.

"When was the last time you ate, love?" The Warder stepped forward and took her arm, interrupting her moment's reverie.

Pevan shook her head, her forehead loaded with the weight of the last couple of days. Besides the sudden weakness in her neck, she felt only the cold of the wind. "Um... before the quake, yesterday. After that I came here as quickly as I could."

Stiffly, Wolpan said, "Get her some food, Bersh, but come back straight away. Atla can look after her. Thia, Marit, you have your tasks."

The Four Knot turned on her heel and stalked off down the street. The Clearseer patted Pevan on the arm again before leading the Warder off in the same direction. Pevan nodded to the two Guides and let herself be led back towards the waterfront.

The Guide deposited her in a warehouse on the fringe of the old city that had been taken over by the townsfolk as a refuge. Partitioned down the middle, this half had been laid out with crude planks-on-bricks benches and trestles. At one end, a handful of women whose exhaustion had turned them ghostly or cadaverous staffed a bench, passing out rolls and cups of water. Every so often, someone would come through from the other half, with slack cheeks and grey eyes, and just lean on the partition. Most had blood on their clothes; that would be the hospital, then.

The looks on the faces of those taking sustenance at the tables around her were little better. Most of the motion she could see was automatic, mechanical. The only exceptions were where people moved around, into or out of the warehouse. They came in pairs, always, one, injured, leaning on the other – the lucky one.

After only a minute or two tearing at her own ration, Pevan lost her grip on the cold private shock of Rel’s possible fate. As a feeling, it was in too much good company. Vessit as a whole felt like that hard patch in the gullet that makes you desperate to cry but lets no tears past. Seeing the buildings had been bad enough, but the people showed too clearly that most of those buildings were homes.

Atla, propped up on his elbows, his chin resting on interlocked fingers, was clearly no less affected. He alternated between staring at her bread – had the lad had anything to eat during the vigil for the Sherriff? – and staring at her face, and if his eyes held their unnerving directness, his eyelids were tight, leaving a narrow strip of white at the top and bottom of his irises.

She took another bite of the roll – plain fare, but welcome – and lowered it to the table. Atla’s eyes followed it down. After a moment, his head dropped too, into his hands. He was trembling, and for a moment Pevan took it as a sign of crying, but no tears fell to the bare plank under his elbows. Down the other end of the trestle, a broad-shouldered man of about Rel’s age glanced at the Guide, his face sickly.

Pevan leaned forward a little, so she could keep her voice low. "Chin up, Atla." Even at a murmur, she made the words forceful. The boy’s head came up sharply, and she wondered if she’d misjudged, but those wide eyes of his clearly saw something in her face that checked him. He waited, and, still keeping her voice down, she explained, "You're Gifted. These people need to know you're keeping them safe. Sometimes, all that means is not looking beaten when you feel you are."

He looked around, flinching away from actually looking directly at anyone at all. When he spoke, his tone was sullen. "You weren't here."

"But I do know my job." She took a sip of water, trying to pretend it wasn’t brackish. The kid was so green. "It's hard, I know. And sometimes it feels like it can't make a difference. These people need you, more than they realise." Hard though it was, she forced herself to crack a lopsided smile. "It's okay to doze, everyone knows you were up all night. But prop your head up when you do it."

"I can't do much for them as a Guide." Atla bounced a fist very softly off the tabletop.

"So?" Pevan ripped another bite from the roll, spoke around it. "Do what you can for them as a person."

He looked around, head up and neck straight, like a puppy alert to a strange new sound. His eyes settled on something behind Pevan and before she could turn to see, he was half-way out of his seat. The fellow at the other end of the table, and his similarly-sized companion, turned to look, even as Pevan hauled Atla back down.

She used his moment of bewilderment – again, like a puppy knowing it’s done something wrong, but not what – to get the first word in. "Okay, lesson two." A chunk of bread threatened to catch in her throat for a moment, but she coughed it clear. "Wolpan told you to stay with me for a reason. What was it?"

The boy glared at her, jaw set. Then he looked around, noticed someone looking back from the next bench, and his cheeks reddened. He lowered his eyes to the table, bit his lip. When he spoke, he took a long time over it. "She... thinks you’re a danger to us? To Vessit?"

Pevan grunted, smothering a chuckle with another drink of the too-warm, stale water. In Atla’s eyes, probably everything Wolpan did indicated some threat or other. The Four Knot was definitely of the angry stripe. Small wonder Rel and Dora hadn’t thrived here. She frowned at the trainee Guide. "Wolpan doesn’t like me much, but she’s smarter than that." Keeping the gesture small, she indicated the rest of the room. "You’re here because to everyone else, I’m a stranger. At a time like this, that makes people nervous. You’re not here because Wolpan thinks I’m dangerous, whether or not she actually does. You’re here because she knows the civvies will worry if I’m not watched."

That gave him pause. While he fiddled with his hands and tried to look around the room again without moving his head, Pevan took another bite of the roll. The water was grim, but the bread wasn’t bad, all things considered.

She felt Atla’s eyes land on her despite the fact she was peering into her cup at the time. His attention was powerful, unsettling, but without a hint of threat or anger in it. He said, "You aren’t angry about what she said?"

What did she say? More importantly, which of several possibilities did Atla have in mind? At least he was looking less beaten now. It couldn’t hurt the weary mood of the town to see the lad holding his own against her. She let herself frown, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

He swallowed, but she let him get away with it. The uncertainty didn’t carry into his voice. "What Wolpan said... I know she doesn’t like your brother very much."

"I don’t like my brother very much, some of the time." Pevan rolled her eyes. "I’ll be living with his reputation the rest of my life. He doesn’t bend his neck easily. I don’t like it when Federas gets a bad name because of... because of what happened." Better not to try saying it out loud, really. She’d end up defending Rel more than he deserved. Instead, she moved on. "No, Wolpan’s a fair judge of character and she knows her job. I’m sure she’d like to never see an Atcar again, but she doesn’t have to like me to see that I get what I need."

Atla ran a hand through his hair. Quietly, he said, "I don’t think she likes me much, either."

"She trusts you." Pevan put some effort behind the words. She could almost see the result play across the little Guide’s face. Nothing specific, but he seemed a little healthier. "At least, she thinks the civvies will trust you, and she believes you can hold that trust."

"I... really?" He looked around again, those relentless eyes studying other faces intently.

As if he was looking for some visible sign of trust, she realised. No-one had said a word to him in greeting, or even given him a wave of recognition, since they’d come in. She’d taken it as a sign of how traumatised everyone was, but maybe he hadn’t integrated well. He was a long way from home for training, which spoke well of his Gift, at least. Well, she was going to need a Guide if she was going to follow Rel to the Court.

"You think so?" Atla’s voice drew her out of the beginnings of a plan.

She nodded, bought time for more thinking by burying her face in her drink. It was so unpleasant as to be almost rancid, but she choked down as much as she could. No-one in Vessit was going to have any time for working on Atla’s training for a few days, and she needed a Guide to get her to the Court. The resident Guide would be needed here, or at least not off chasing Rel, since the townsfolk would almost certainly take that as a sign of Rel’s guilt. There was precedent for Gifted in training to have a stand-in mentor, for a few days or even longer if necessary.

It wasn’t going to be possible to get the grimace off her face when she lowered the cup, but she couldn’t drink any more. Hoping to cover, she stood as sharply as she could the moment the cup was back on the table. She fixed Atla with the glare she used back home when taking charge of incursions. "Come on, I want to speak to your mentor. What was his name?"

"Bersh." Atla got to his feet, stepping over his bench and catching a toe on it. He flinched, glanced at the men at the far end of the table, who’d lost interest, and turned back to her. His face was pained. "His... his house collapsed in the quake. This might not be the best time..."

A detail from the confrontation with Wolpan surfaced. She’d set the Clearseer and the Warder to tasks, but left Bersh at a loose end. A cold fist curled around her waist, and she could feel the shape of her frown changing. To Atla, she said, "His family?"

"Enlie – his daughter – is fine. Vanna broke her arm." The lad’s eyes flickered away, and he folded his arms. It took him a moment to pull himself together, but he nodded toward the partition. "They’re in the infirmary."

Not too bad, then. But for a Gifted used to his family being safe at home... Well, with any luck, Bersh would want Atla out of his hair all the more. Pevan glared at the table for a moment. If Atla hadn’t adjusted well to the town in general, how had he gotten on with the Guide’s family? He’d have been living with them. Maybe it would help keep his mind off it. She nodded once, curtly. "Alright. Take me to him."

"Um..." Atla glanced around. Well, people were starting to stare at them, upright and unmoving in the middle of the room, and the kid was obviously self-conscious. Twitching muscles in his jaw and neck betrayed his nerves, but he found the will to face up to her. "What’s this about?"

Something better discussed without anyone else in earshot, that was for sure. Time to work on his discipline rather than his public relations. Growing up with Dora had made everything a lesson, one way or another. Rather than answer him, she set off, briskly enough that she heard his boots scuff through a couple of skipped steps to keep up.

She looked back at him as they left the warehouse, amused to see him ducking under the wide roll-up door despite the fact his head had several feet of clearance. Trying to keep laughter from her voice, she said, "How long have you been in training?"

He actually stumbled at the question, meeting her eyes only clumsily. Self-conscious didn’t begin to cover it. She let him catch up, matched her step to his. Even then, he spoke slowly, cautiously. "I, uh, I came to Vessit last autumn."

"Gifted back in the summer?"

The question seemed to scare the boy for some reason, and he flinched away before mumbling, "Um, yeah."

Better to press on than give any more rein to his nervousness. If she was going to take on his training, even for a few days, the one thing that needed more work than anything else was his confidence. Remind him of what really counted. "You've had some time in the Second Realm, then. Any actual incursions?"

"There was an incident not long after I arrived. But... um, I wasn't involved." He looked away, cheeks colouring. She recognised the expression; she'd felt the same way half a dozen times during her training, when Temmer had ordered her to stay home.

"Chin up," she said again, and reached over to squeeze his shoulder. "I need a Guide, and Bersh is needed here. He's not going to have much time for looking after you with his family in a bad way."

Atla's eyes widened, then narrowed again, sharply. For once their penetrating directness was reversed - she could watch opportunity and suspicion fight within him in near-perfect clarity. Predictably, the result was uncertainty. He said, "I don't know if I'm..."

"You'll be fine." Pevan made the words as firm as she could. No point getting Bersh on-side only for the boy to go to pieces from fear. "I just need to get to the Court and check some things. Nothing fancy. You can't tell me you don't feel a bit useless here at the moment."

"I-" His hesitancy was endearing, if a little irritating. Still, he straightened a little before finishing, "Yeah. We'll see what Bersh thinks, anyway."

"That'll do. Lead on." She waved him forward. Atla picked up his step, though whether through enthusiasm or just the wish to not linger amidst the ruins any longer, she couldn't tell. It was more than a little sobering to follow the trainee she was all but plotting to abduct through the battered town. There were some blocks where so many of the houses were flat that she could see the next street.

She saw no other people, though, until they reached Bersh. The Guide stood statue-still by the ruins of his house, hands clasped atop his head, face pale. Pevan found a hitch in her step as she approached. He'd seemed warm, the friendliest of Vessit's squad, earlier. What change might seeing his ruined home by daylight have wrought?

Atla fell behind, unease clear on his face - well, the place would have been his home, too, for the last half-year or so - as Pevan approached Bersh. She moved as gently as possible, trying to be only a quiet presence in the big man's awareness. She couldn't afford to seem bluff or insensitive to his suffering. Still, before she could be accused of sneaking around, she stopped short. Her voice tried to flutter slightly against sudden unease, but she held it steady. "Excuse me, Guide?"

It was the correct formal address, but the flicker of a frown across Bersh's face told her it wasn't something he was used to. Probably still preferable to the presumption of using his name though. He blinked his way out of reverie quickly enough, at least. "Hm? Oh, sorry. What's up?" His voice was hoarse and stiff, with none of the resonance his barrel chest should have supplied.

She bowed her head. "Sorry, I know this isn't a good time. Atla mentioned your lady was injured." Still looking down, she wrung her hands together at her waist, trying to seem as awkward and apologetic as possible. A niggling tickle of unease somewhere just under her diaphragm made the act easy, but speaking just that little bit harder. "I need to make a trip to the Court, um, to see if Rel's there. I was hoping I could borrow Atla. Take over his training for a few days, if you like."

Now she did look up, not wanting to seem too shifty. She missed meeting Bersh's eyes, though, as the Guide turned to frown at his apprentice. There was no sense of chill in the air between them, though, except for the wind. Bersh frowned at her, just slightly, and said, "He's got a way to go before I'll pass him."

"I can't let the trail go cold, and I can't ask you to leave your town and family at a time like this." She didn't need to pretend any of the compassion she put into her voice. A half-step forward, on the other hand, was a calculated gesture of camaraderie, and she could see the slight shift in Bersh's cheeks as he relaxed. Pressing the gain, Pevan rolled her eyes and finished, "Besides, as people will insist on reminding me, I have some experience of working with unqualified Gifted."

That drew a dry chuckle from the Guide, and Pevan wondered if he could see the tension flooding out of her. Some of the warmth came back to his voice as he said, "Sorry about that. Wolpan's under a lot of strain right now."

"I can sympathise with that." Pevan smiled, leaned forward a little. "Let me tell you a little secret, something only Gatemakers travel enough to realise." She glanced back at Atla, jerked her head for the boy to step forward. Wouldn't hurt to let him feel included with the grown-ups. "Four Knots are as territorial as tomcats."

At that, Bersh outright laughed, close to roaring. Only the slight gasp at the end of the sound betrayed his exhaustion. "I'll take your word for it, lass."

"It's true." She straightened, folding her arms. "Dora's the same."

"Well, she and Wolpan definitely didn't get on." The Guide's face sobered, rounded edges flattening out, as he turned to face Atla. "Are you up to this, lad?"

Another unfortunate test. The boy really needed something to prop him up a bit. He cringed before answering, "I... uh, I hope so?"

Better not to let him stand on his own confidence just yet. Pevan shifted her feet slightly, moved a little way towards interposing herself between mentor and student. "I trained alongside a Guide, sir. I can look after him for a quick trip to the Court. The experience will do him good, don't you think?"

Bersh raised one eyebrow, and there was very little humour in the gesture. "It's your risk, love."

"I'll take full responsibility." She put a bit more weight into the words, let her gaze go distant, poking through the Guide. "I'm not messing around. We could all do with learning what Rel's been up to."

When she met his eyes again, she had him. He looked from the ruined house, to Atla, then back to her. His voice, when it came, was gruff, tightly-held emotions shifting in its depths. "True enough. True enough. Good luck to you both."

He didn't immediately turn away, so Pevan offered her hand. He shook, and she said, "Thank you. Best wishes for your lady, too."

At that, the conversation was over. She could tell by the way Bersh's attention went back to his house, leaving behind most of the brief burst of humour she'd drawn from him. Pevan shared a glance with Atla, and they withdrew as gently and silently as feathers on a breeze. As soon as they were far enough away for it to be polite, she accelerated, dragging the boy along in her wake.

She kept up the sense of urgency while badgering bread and a canteen of water out of the lady who was managing the town's food. The faster she went, the less chance Atla had to raise an objection or lose his nerve. As it was, he stayed quiet, simply nodding in mild bewilderment when people looked at him for confirmation that she wasn't a thief.

It was only as she asked for blankets that she realised Chag would present a problem. The stout, stone-faced woman in the refectory accepted the excuse of wanting a third for wrapping the food up in, even though Pevan floundered for a moment before coming up with it. The woman's eyes drilled into her as she left the old warehouse with the 'spare' blanket tied into a sling across her chest, bread and water tucked carefully inside.

The problem, though, was going to be explaining Chag's presence to Atla. Fingers of ice probed tentatively through the tangle of her guts as she wondered how the lad would react. Would he assume Chag was responsible for the catastrophe of the previous day? Try to turn them in? He had little enough foundation for trust, though he didn't protest when she led him into the old city rather than West towards the Sherim.

He didn't protest, either, when she didn't use a Gate to spare the mile or so of walking to reach the building where she'd left Chag. A clear sign of the boy's inexperience - anyone who'd worked with a Gatemaker regularly would have complained. Chag certainly did when she made him walk anywhere. Still, the walk bought her time to think.

It also justified the decision to pick up blankets as well as food. Along the unsheltered shorefront road, the wind tore in off the bay, laden with salt and cold mist, and even with a blanket pulled tight around her as a crude cloak, she could feel the heat being leeched out of her. Her cheeks and eyes began to sting, which only made it harder to think about broaching the subject of Chag with Atla.

Finally, the sight of the low row of gutted shops where Chag would be waiting brought her thinking time to an end. She stopped, and Atla, half a pace behind, froze instantly. There was fear in his voice as he said, "Is- uh, is everything alright?"

She took a deep breath and, despite herself, looked around before answering. Not the way to seem trustworthy, but there was something disquietingly attentive about the battered, lumpen, leaning towers of the old city. Meeting Atla's eyes was no more comfortable - the boy had definitely sensed something amiss. How to put him at his ease?

"I haven't told you everything yet." She held her voice steady by force of will, knowing it made her sound constricted and tense. Atla started to reply, but she shot up a single finger in the space between them and he paused. "I haven't lied, mind. We're going to the Court to find my brother and try to figure out what happened with the quakes. But, well..."

He stepped round to stand facing her, frowning. His eyes disappeared into shadow, which made it easier to press on. Trying to ignore how panicked she sounded in her own ears, she said, "There are factions among the Children of the Wild. Rel's caught up in a feud between two of them, and either one of them could have caused the quake." True enough, one way or another. She gave in to the tension that was pushing her words faster. Let Atla think she was afraid; in all fairness, she probably was. "At the moment, I just don't know enough to know which faction is on our side, if either of them are. We could be walking into anything at the Court. I was working with one of the factions, but now I'm not sure about them, and, well, I'm here with a... a colleague."

For once, to his credit, Atla didn't flinch. He did grow noticeably paler, though. "A Wilder?"

Now that she'd stopped speaking, it was hard to start again. The wind sucked away what little moisture was left on her tongue, and she almost gagged before she managed, "Worse. Chag Van Raighan."


"Caught up in the feud," she cut him off, somehow thrusting the words past her half-closed throat. Atla waited, ashen and slack-jawed, while she swallowed and licked her lips. "I'm not asking you to like what Chag's done. I don't and neither does he. But if you're going to be a Gifted, even this far South, you need to remember that dealing with the Second Realm is never simple. Until we get to the bottom of everything that's happened, I want you to treat Chag as a victim of Coercion. Understood?"

He didn't nod. Instead he swallowed, his gaze beginning to waver. "But..."

With the truth out, it was easier to summon up a glare. "If necessary, you can consider it an order." Atla blanched at the words, or maybe her tone, and she forced herself to soften, slouching just a little and folding her arms. "Look, I'm not asking you to like it. Give the man a chance. Right now, we need his contacts more than justice."

The words had the desired effect on the boy, but a vision of Dora's face rose in Pevan's mind. If she'd said the same in the Four Knot's presence, she doubted she'd have survived. If Chag turned out to be wrong, if Dora's judgement of the Separatists was fair, if Rel had almost destroyed the Realm, what then? How would Wolpan greet Vessit's next guest from Federas?

She almost missed Atla's muted, "Okay." He turned to look along the shorefront. "We're meeting him here?" Concentrate on the task at hand. Don't think too hard about facing Dora again, wherever she was. Pevan suppressed a shiver, nodded in the direction of the old shopping arcade. "Over there. Come on." She set off, jaw fixed tight, face tensed against any sign of inner doubt. Atla needed a leader far more confident than Pevan felt.

* * *

Next episode

Thursday, 24 January 2013


This is what a depressing start to the year looks like for a writer:

That's a clip from the spreadsheet where I track downloads for episodes of The Second Realm. The numbers (below the second black line) are the total downloads for each individual episode, with this one, the most recent (published on December 31st), at the bottom and boxed in red.

That string of zeros prompted me to publish this whinge, which I now need to fully and publically retract. It's not just that it's a kinda whingy post (and in my defence, it's hardly the most whingy thing I could have written in the circumstances - I was trying to analyse the problem); it's that I made a couple of discoveries on Sunday which go some way to explaining the problem, and both of them are mistakes on my part for which I owe an apology...

Firstly, the link at the top of the right-hand column of this page you're looking at now, the one which is supposed to go to the hub page for the current season of The Second Realm, was broken. I apparently failed to check it or make use of it for three whole weeks, which speaks pretty ill of me. Given that my only marketing activity is this blog, and that link is the main and most visible way for people to discover my actual writing, this can't have done me any favours. So, sorry about that.

A broken link, though, is just a dumb mistake. The more serious error is my failure to notice the 'recommended price' that Smashwords displays for books published on their pay-what-you-like (PWYL) service. I didn't know this existed, and somehow I've managed to publish two PWYL short stories, and visit their Smashwords pages several times each, without noticing.

Worse, this means that the default value was left up. The default value, regardless of publication length, is $4.95. Now, I'm aware that there are writers out there who disagree with me on this, but I think that's a pretty outrageous price for a 10,000-word short story, particularly one that's available for free elsewhere.

The 'recommended price' feature actually exists so that Smashwords can put a price on PWYL books when it ships them out to its partner distributors (Apple, Sony, Kobo etc.), because none of them have the facility to offer PWYL through their stores. You don't get the ability to change the default until after you've published the book (and the setting is hidden away in a sub-page of the main settings page), which is how I missed it during publication. There's no option 'Don't show recommended price on this book's Smashwords page'.

Given that I've blogged more than once about my enthusiasm for PWYL models, I wouldn't hold it against anyone to have viewed that default recommendation as an act of unspeakable hubris on my part (particularly if I didn't know it was a default). The whole point of PWYL is leaving the decision about price up to the reader.

PWYL is about asking the reader the question, "What do you think this is worth to you?"

Putting a recommended price on a PWYL book is basically changing that to "I think this is worth this much, what about you?", a question which is cognate with "Do you think this is worth this much?" At best, that second question is the same as non-PWYL sales have been asking since the dawn of capitalism. The best one can hope for with a recommended price is no advance in consumer psychology over ordinary capitalism.

But trying to put myself in a reader's perspective, I think I'd regard it as rather worse. I'd be very put off to see a recommended price on a PWYL book; I'd feel like the author was telling me 'I trust you to come to your own decision about this, but only if you live up to that trust by agreeing with me'. It's a weird and deeply unpleasant combination of emotional blackmail and hypocrisy.

In fact, given that the PWYL model seems to be on the rise, I'd view it as a shallow act of bandwagon-jumping, trying to keep the 'protection' of the fixed-price model while grabbing the fad of PWYL.

Therefore, I hereby reject any 'recommended price' for any of my PWYL publications. I've set the numbers on Smashwords as low as they'll go (which, unfortunately, is still $0.99), and I'm going to write to Smashwords and ask for the option to hide the recommended price on the SW page (though it's a bit adjustment to ask, so I'm not hopeful). Unless and until that option becomes available, I'd like you all to ignore the recommended price completely. Please?

Monday, 21 January 2013

High Drama (part 1)

(This is not the next installment of the series I've promised on WEIRDos - I'm planning to run that on Thursdays/Fridays, but there won't be one this week because the new Second Realm episode is out this weekend. It's also not the blog I was promising yesterday about my cock-up with Smashwords, which will run on Thursday)

Instead, today, before the moment fades, I want to start on a topic I've been prompted towards by the final volume of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, a fantasy epic I've been a fan of for over a decade. The final volume came out a couple of weeks ago, and I'm finally reading it (it's very good - and don't worry about spoilers; I won't be discussing it in detail, and I haven't finished it yet so I can't spoil any of the really juicy stuff).

The Wheel of Time captures what I feel to be the essence of 'fantasy' as a genre, and thus forms a very good jumping-off point for an attempt to define the genre. You might be thinking that you know how fantasy is defined - after all, there are sections in the bookshops for it (actually, and I feel this is a point in my favour, most of the bookshops I've been in lump fantasy and sci-fi together) - but I want to pose the question in a slightly new way.

This is a video about design theory for video games, and to those of you not literate in games, it may be a little bit dense, but it provides the basics of a framework for genre definition that I think we need to bring into the SFF world in books (I don't mean, by the way, that I want to use their definition of fantasy - I think it works just fine for games, but isn't what 'fantasy' is truly about in literature).

Put simply, the video lays out a way of analysing genre which cuts things up in terms of core aesthetics rather than superficial ones (the superficial aesthetics in games being the mechanics). The core aesthetics of a piece of art (for some legitimate-but-broad definition of 'art') are the things that we go to that particular piece of art for rather than any other.

The presenter claims that outside of the video game world, where art within a medium is broken up by genre, the genres are defined by core aesthetics. This is certainly true, I think, for cinema (which makes sense, since it's the field which has made most effective use of the concept) - it's easy to see that romance, drama, horror and so on are fulfilling different emotional/psychological needs. Something similar is true for most forms of literary genre - after all, you can tell what a person goes to erotica or horror for pretty clearly, but the same is generally true of literary fiction, thrillers etc. etc.

But there's quite a difference between the way sci-fi and fantasy are handled in films and the way they're handled in books. By way of example, despite all involving fictitious science, Armageddon is a disaster movie, while The Matrix is an action film and The Day The Earth Stood Still essentially a kind of political thriller.

By contrast, consider my favourite science fiction novel, Dan Simmons' Hyperion (actually, my favourite is the second in the series, but never mind that). Hyperion contains, in order, a horror story, an erotic romance (though not a massively explicit one), a bizarre cross between a reflexive meditation on art and a psychological thriller, a family drama, a Hollywood-Chandleresque detective story, and an unmistakably literary character piece tale-within-a-tale.

All of them have elements of fictitious science, with characters undergoing relativistic time dilation effects, or visiting dozens of worlds, or travelling through vast galactic computer networks, or being hunted by sinister automata, but the underlying stories are of vastly different types.

So what makes them all science fiction? Well, in a lesser collection of stories, the answer would be 'space ships and laser guns' - there are certainly many works of sci-fi which are really just thrillers transposed into a spacey context. In the case of Hyperion, though, every one of those stories involves an element of fictional science whose effect on the characters could only be achieved by that means - one character, for example, is made immortal; another sees his lover only a handful of times, between relativistic journeys that mean she ages through a whole life-span while he stays young.

The key to defining sci-fi, then, is this link between scenario and characters - this is what links all of Hyperion's stories with the much more precisely scientific sci-fi of Arthur Clarke's Earthlight or  Greg Egan's Diaspora. We shouldn't fall into the trap of saying that everything set in space is sci-fi; Star Wars, for example, is just the monomyth in space, no different from the myth of Orpheus or, fundamentally, The Lord of the Rings. The space-ness of it doesn't add anything except visuals - superficial stuff.

So much for sci-fi, then. But this post is primarily about fantasy, and this raises a more difficult question. Think for a moment about cinema; is Bruce Almighty a fantasy film? What about Twilight or Evil Dead? Equivalent books could (and, indeed, do, at least in the case of Twilight) find their way into the fantasy section in a bookshop.

It might be tempting to say that fantasy is about worlds that are alternatives to our own, either in terms of being (like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia) worlds with a hidden magic element, or in terms of being secondary-world fantasies (like The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire). But I've already discussed the absurdity that that leads to.

I hope that so far, I've shown that there's a problem here worth talking about. To put it bluntly, I feel like most of the people in charge of genre branding for books use the following decision process: 'Does it have magic in it? Okay, it's fantasy.' (and yes, magical realism blah blah blah, I'll come back to the topic of magical realism later). Okay, we now have various labels like 'YA fantasy' and 'Dark fantasy', which I suppose are steps in the right direction, but you still see a big lumping-together of stuff on the fantasy shelves.

One last example: Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson is a fantasy version of Ocean's Eleven - it's a heist caper (which, in cinema, is a surprisingly clear-cut and distinctive genre, albeit a quite rare one), with all the particular kinds of character interplay and authorial sleight of hand that implies. And yet it sits on the shelf right next to his The Way of Kings, which is unabashedly a straightforward epic. Okay, author branding makes it good to keep all his books in one place, and most bookshops don't have a section for capers (though they'd normally end up in 'crime' alongside a bunch of books better described as 'thrillers'), but the two books are very different in feel and style.

So there's a problem here. I'm going to split at this point (ooo, cliff-hanger ending), and next week, I'll pick up the theme and offer my definition of fantasy as a genre (and then I'll get back to that WEIRD stuff).

Friday, 18 January 2013

Making the world WEIRDer

(Education; Industrialisation; Riches; Democracy; Conclusion)

This is a topic that's been doing the rounds for a couple of years now, starting with this paper by Joe Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan. The WEIRD paper (as I'll be calling it henceforth) is originally about the predominant use of American undergraduates as a sample in psychological studies. It turns out that a vast majority of psychological studies are carried out on the people that psychology academics have to hand - to whit, their students.

The WEIRD paper claims that the assumption made by all this research, that undergraduates form a representative sample - that is, that things which are generally true of undergraduates can be expected to be generally true of everyone else - is misguided, and that in fact undergraduates are a very poor sample, due to being from a quite peculiar background - a background of being Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (hence, WEIRD, which may be set to become this generation's YUPpy or WASP).

Now, there are some legitimate questions over the psychological science involved in this paper; not so much the claim that undergrads make up too much of our psychological sample, but whether or not the WEIRD diagnosis is correct and whether it is as much (or as little) of a problem as the WEIRD team think. Those complaints are for psychologists and anthropologists, though, and I'm neither (this article is a good starting point - I particularly enjoy its suggestion that we replace WEIRDs with MYOPICS: Materialist, Young, self-Obsessed, Pleasure-seeking, Isolated, Consumerist, and Sedentary).

I'm more interested in a broader issue which has appeared in some commentary on the WEIRD paper, an issue which falls more squarely within my remit as a philosopher. Roughly put, some people have made an argument a bit like this:

- The WEIRD paper can be taken as alleging that the most powerful nations in the world (at least, pre-2008) share an unusual mindset, the WEIRD mindset.
- These nations have imposed their values, the values which come from the WEIRD mindset, on other nations.
- The cultures and values of other nations have been suppressed or otherwise damaged as a result.

The first of these claims by itself could be quite controversial even in the wake of the original WEIRD paper, but I have seen references to other research which has pointed in this direction (though the only thing I can lay hands on at short notice is a reference to this book by Ethan Watters), and I'm happy to accept the claim.

What we're talking about, of course, is cultural imperialism, and there is much more to the debate about cultural imperialism than the WEIRD paper. Certainly, the Western tradition of cultural imperialism (and it does seem to be a primarily Western tradition) has a great many evils to its name, both directly and indirectly - it goes back at least as far as the slave trade, encompasses the partitioning and statification of the third world, and remains an issue today in our handling of post-war Afghanistan and Iraq, to say nothing of the growing question of how we should deal with China's essentially non-democratic power system (and, indeed, whether we should take the nation's hierarchy into account at all in our dealings with them).

There is definitely, therefore, a worry here, one that Watters and anyone else like him is entirely right to examine. But there's also a possibility of overstating the danger and going too far in the opposite direction. If we try too strenuously to avoid cultural imperialism, we will end up with unrestricted cultural relativism - the doctrine that outsiders to a culture can pass no judgement at all on the values of that culture.

Stated as such, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with cultural relativism. It's certainly more palatable than some of the more condescending and clumsy acts of imperialism in the 21st century. But the philosopher Jürgen Habermas pointed out that relativism is incompatible with the doctrine of human rights. Basically, a 'human right' is, by definition, a universal value (at least, to all humans and human-like sentients). So if you want to say there are human rights, you must accept the principle of censuring cultures whose values conflict with what you identify as 'human rights'.

This is where we find perhaps the most serious danger of cultural imperialism - who, after all, should decide what is and isn't a human right? The deeply anglocentric UN? If the WEIRD research is right, these decisions have been made, from the first, by people not necessarily qualified to speak on such matters.

I posed this question to a philosophy seminar group I was teaching last term, and most of them expressed a preference for relativism over human rights, at least in terms of us being the ones to pick rights to prescribe for all of mankind.

However, when I re-phrased the question as "Is there a universal human right to life?" that preference more or less disappeared. Put more strongly, we could ask "Is respect for a cultural value ever so important that one should allow that value to lead to the death of a human being?" If you answer no (and, though this is a debate for another time, I believe one should), then you accept Habermas' point.

You may have realised by now (no kidding) that I'm no relativist. In fact, I am quite stringently against relativism, for a whole wealth of reasons. However, relating this specifically to the WEIRD research, what I want to present, over the course of the next few weeks, is an argument that the values identified by the WEIRD team - education, industrialisation, richness and democracy ('western' isn't a value in and of itself) - are actually, properly construed, very good things to be promoting in all circumstances.

I'm not saying that these values as currently practiced in Western society should be exported - I think we actually do a pretty shoddy job of some of them, especially democracy - but the essence of each value remains important, and, I will argue, universal. I do not intend to be a cultural imperialist speaking purely to cultures other than my own - I would rather regard myself as a cultural absolutist speaking to all cultures (and indeed, my claim to be just this will figure in several of my arguments).

The question of whether I am fit to make pronouncements of this kind is a legitimate one, but one I will deal with separately. I also intend to offer some arguments as to why being WEIRD may have had a part to play in creating the dominance of western culture to date.

All of that will have to wait for other posts, though, because this one has gone on long enough.

Monday, 14 January 2013

What the other half are saying...

So, on the 30th of December, the Observer newspaper published this article, making ten predictions about publishing in 2013. I agree with some of them (ebooks continuing to cost less than an espresso), and I can't honestly say I outright disagree with any (except the tongue-in-cheek hope that Amazon will be boycotted over their tax practices - there's a knotty moral problem in this area, but I'll reserve it for another time). What niggled at me was the overall establishment sense of the piece, from the closest thing the British press has to a paper that should know better.

For example, prediction #3 reads: "As the self-published market booms, more writers will be scouted on Wattpad and more publishers will launch self-publishing services, like Simon & Schuster's controversial Archway." This is probably all true, but the description of Archway as 'controversial' is at best generous. Archway is Author Solutions, and that Writer Beware article summarises the problem better than I can.

In fact, as Writer Beware points out, contracting with Author Solutions to run a 'self-publishing service' is already in vogue among the big six, which is the single biggest piece of evidence yet to emerge that they really don't care about anything resembling ethics or responsible business practices. Now, the Observer is supposed to be Britain's most intellectually rigorous, sensibly left-wing paper - why is their mention of this trend so uncritical? It's not just British manners. Were I writing an article like this for the Observer (and yes, I'm aware there's a risk of being sued for libel, because our libel laws are ridiculous over here), this note would read 'More traditional publishers will contract with Author Solutions to tempt naive authors with overpriced 'self-publishing' package deals of dubious value.' - and if there wasn't the threat of lawsuits, I'd word this rather more strongly.

Prediction #5 puts a rather positive spin on things, too; "Traditional publishing will become more experimental." Now, without wanting to start sniping, I can't help but hear Joe Konrath's voice completing this sentence with ' a desperate attempt to catch up to the innovations of the independent sector.' The examples the Observer gives focus on "stretch[ing] the definition of 'book'", but while there will be a degree of that on both sides of the fence, the internet has been doing this in a huge variety of ways for fifteen years or more, just as it's stretched the definitions of 'film', 'newspaper', 'comic' and countless other terms.

The innovations that are coming out of the digital publishing revolution aren't artistic revolutions - those were happening anyway, and will continue to do so. The digital publishing revolution is an industrial revolution, and its innovations are in pricing models, distribution, product life-cycles and so on. Perhaps most importantly, the digital revolution might be producing changes in reading habits, with more people now reading on their commutes, and possibly even more people reading overall, mainly thanks to Amazon and Apple - organisations that certainly can't be included in the label 'Traditional Publishing'.

#4 sounds hopelessly out of touch when it says, "Self-published authors will start to form co-operatives, such as Awesome Indies." It's the 'start' that's problematic; after all, I can remember finding my way to the Indie Book Collective website right at the start of my interest in self-publishing, almost two years ago. Where's the mention of Carolyn Arnold's Celebrating Authors, which has been knocking around for at least a year, or Kristen Lamb's #MyWANA, which has been a feature of the self-publishing landscape as long as I've been aware of there being a self-publishing landscape? For that matter, what about Booktrope, which an author-led group far more substantial than just 'a collective'?

One thing I wholeheartedly agree on is #9: "Libraries and publishers will fail to see eye to eye on ebook lending." But this is not a problem that's coming from the library side. This is conservative, reactionary publishers making life difficult for libraries and readers alike out of paranoia about lost profits. Given how (rightly) furious the British left wing got in defence of our libraries after the Cameron government came to power in 2010, why is there no censure at all here of the corporate publishers?

It would be both trite and unfair to suggest that this was a deliberate ideological move to close ranks with other big publishing institutions (the Guardian-Observer group of papers is the only segment of the British press to be financially protected from corporate and political influence). The problem in this case - and the only thing that makes this article worth talking about, because most of the other broadsheets will have made similar predictions, but without the independence that the Observer has - is rather that we, the footsoldiers of the digital revolution, are failing to get the message out.

If a paper as scrupulous as the Observer can be this blind to where the frontiers currently lie, and to the realities of policies like 'not seeing eye to eye' with libraries and hiring Author bloody Solutions to run your self-publishing platform, we have a long way to go before gaining the parity that we need and deserve with the traditional machine.

I'm not normally this belligerent, but the Observer article was a real eye-opener. There's a big gulf between how we see what we're doing and how the world outside sees it, and we're not going to overcome the prejudice against self-published books until we change that.