Thursday, May 03, 2007

One For the Road

Black Desert: Excerpt

The train dropped Nyx off at a refueling station within view of Mushira where the local farmers collected fuel for their farming equipment and personal vehicles.

Nyx alighted and pulled up the hood of her burnous. She started to put on her goggles and then looked out over Mushira and stopped. She wouldn’t need those here. After the rolling desolation of the dunes and the flat white sea of the desert, the green terraced hills around Mushira were a jarring change of scenery.

She waited around at the train station until the hottest part of the day had passed, then began the long walk down to the river.

Mushira was full of fat, soft, happy people. These were the hills of her childhood, the terraced green and amber fields that she had run into the desert to forget. Mushira was an isolated oasis; they used up all of the local water for farming, so nobody came in to ship it out. Though there were some people who came into town to do business, Mushirans didn’t make a habit of traveling. Nyx had known Mushira was an anomaly even while she was growing up there, because the sand was never more than a few hours walk from her mother’s farm, and the trains and bakkies that ferried goods in and out of Mushira were operated by hard-bitten, skinny desert people who knew how to use a knife for something other than carving up synthetic fuel bricks.

Nyx remembered spending many evenings standing out at the edge of the fields and watching the sand blow over the dunes beyond the line of low scrub and fat bulb trees that held back the desert. Some nights she believed the encroachment of the sand was inevitable, and she welcomed it. Other nights she feared the desert would devour her, and she convinced her little brother Ghazi to go out with her and walk the tree barrier after dark, to scare away the sand. He had been afraid of sand cats, so they brought machetes with them - poor protection against the far more likely but less tangible threats of the desert at night: flesh beetles and airborne bursts, rogue magicians and wild shape shifters. But at the time, Nyx had promised Ghazi that she was the most dangerous thing in the desert.

It was the thirty-first, so Nyx had the afternoon to find herself a place and get cleaned up before the morning meeting at the mosque. The mosque was a domed structure at the center of the city, on the eastern bank of the river. Six spiraling minarets ringed the mosque, and during the call to prayer, all six were staffed with muezzins. Mushirians didn't miss a prayer.

Nyx hadn’t been to Mushira since she had returned from the front at nineteen and found nothing waiting for her but a bit of charred, plowed-over land that no longer belonged to her mother. Her mother’s farm had been burned out by Chenjan terrorists as part of a wider raid on Mushira when Nyx was at the front, and by the time she was reconstituted the neighbors had bought the farm and her mother had died at the coast due to complications during her second pregnancy. Nyx hadn’t had any reason to come back.

Nyx walked down into the main square at the entrance to the grounds of the mosque and looked around for a couple of public hotels. There was a convention complex just south of the mosque that should do fine.

The people on the street gave her looks ranging from surreptitious glances to outright stares. Long lines of children followed after their mothers carrying baskets of starches and giant ladybird cages. Nyx kept tugging at her burnous in an attempt to hide her sun sore face. Most desert traders didn’t come down to the square during the off-season, and bel dames and bounty hunters generally stayed out of rural areas - Nyx hadn’t seen her first bel dame until she was sixteen. If Nyx didn’t want to be noticed at the mosque she’d need to buy some new clothes and swap out her sandals for work boots. She probably shouldn’t be going around armed in Mushirah, either. Not visibly, anyway.

She scouted out a hotel and walked over to the marketplace on the other side of the river and bought some new clothes that she couldn’t afford. She found a public bathhouse and changed, then unbuckled her blade and her pistols and stored them in her shopping bag. For a handful of change she got herself a bath and had a girl re-braid her hair in a style more suitable to Mushirian farm matrons. Her mother had worn her hair that way.

When she walked back onto the street she got fewer looks, but the boots hurt and she felt half naked with her sword in a bag instead of on her back. The hotel clerk gave her an odd look when she walked in, but the notes she handed the clerk were mostly clean and certainly valid, and after that she got no trouble.

Nyx spent an uneasy night staring out at the square from the filtered window of her little room. There was a balcony, and after it got dark she moved out there and leaned over the railing. She was tired, and hungry, and ordered up enough food to feed a couple of people, ate it all, and fell into a deep sleep that felt like water after a day in the desert. Her dreams were cloying things; dark and tangled, full of old blood and regret.

The call to prayer woke her at midnight, and after that she couldn’t get back to sleep. She went to the privy down the hall and vomited everything she’d eaten. After, she stayed curled around the hard stone basin with her cheek pressed against the rim while the roaches inside the bowl greedily devoured her offal.

Nasheen was being slowly eaten from the inside, and when somebody had cancer, it had to be cut out. Nyx hadn’t had a steady hand in a long time.

I can’t fuck this up, she thought, and she tried to hold that thought in her fist like a tangible thing, like a stone. But her resolve slipped away, trickled through her fingers like sand.

She couldn't hold back the desert anymore.

Marriage, a History

One of the strongest arguments for continuing to teach history is the incredible sense of freedom it gives an individual who's grown up thinking that the cultural norms, the "reality" that they've grown up in is just "the way things are" or "the way things have always been." Spent some time studying history, and every single one of your assumptions about the way people are, the way the world has to be, will change.

One of the big arguments you get from conservatives about the current US regulations regarding marriage is that marriage has, from time immemorable, been between ONE man and ONE woman. Even somebody who's only ever read the Bible can tell you that that's, well, not true. But it sure *sounds* really good. The kicker is that the sort of male breadwinner marriage "ideal" of ONE man and ONE woman, the nuclear family ideal, is actually only about 50 or 60 years old (and those narrow, aberrant expectations are, even now, changing).

In Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz tracks the history of Western conceptions of marriage from early hunter-gatherer societies to the present day, exploring not only the number and kinds of acceptable partners that made up marriages, but what "marriage" meant in a cultural and economic sense during different periods.

Her interest primarily centers on when and how marriage went from being a largely economic enterprise to one based almost exclusively on mutual affection and devotion; from a business merger between families to a partnering of individuals based exclusively on "love."

Coontz isn't a great writer, and I think that she sometimes tries too hard to appeal to a mainstream audience with all her little jokes and exclamation marks, but that also mean this isn't dry as old toast like some of the history tomes you dust off about, say, ancient Assyria (which could be really fucking rad if written with some oomph). She's entirely without theory, which also helps with the play-by-play reading.

What struck me, reading this history, is how successive women's movements paired with technological advances were key in the shift from women and men partnering as purely economic helpmeets to making it possible for us to make partnering decisions based on something so fickle as love and affection.

Polygamous marriages, she explained, were highly valued not just because they 1) produced more heirs, in the case of one man with multiple wives or 2) in the case of multiple husbands, helped land stay in families, but also because marrying more than one person increased the number of inlaws an individual had. This wasn't only a concern for the rich and powerful: powerful inlaws kept you alive. Without a strong kin network during hard times, you were a goner.

In a world of modern convienences, living wages, and social welfare programs, an extended kin network is no longer as vital, and instead of chiding men and women for putting affection for their partner above that of their kin, people are now often seen as a little loopy for dumping a partner based on what their mother thinks. Back in the day, your mother told you to drop somebody, and you dropped them. The saying went, "You have only one family, but you can always get another wife."

That's not to say, of course, that "love" never existed. Certainly there was lust and mutual affection, but the word "love" was rarely used as an expression of affection between husbands and wives until, I believe, the 19th century. In the early 18th centurey, American lovers said they were "in candor" with one another. The definition of "love" in 1828 was "to be pleased with, to regard with affection. We love a man who has done us a favor."

It was also surprising to see that the more autonomy women had, the more independence, the more taboo homosexuality became among women *and* men. Sleeping in the same bed, women kissing each other, these weren't big things until the 1920s, when women got the vote, a lot of guys died in the war, and women were setting up Boston marriages and fending for themselves. All the sudden, the idea that the sexes could get along without one another was a very real possibility, and marriage conservatives freaked out.

In fact, there's a long history of conservative backlash every time divorce and marriage laws were liberalized. Predictably, we're seeing the same thing now, with some of the same arguments. However, despite all of the doom and gloom, *more* people are actually getting married today than were getting married back in the 1800s when you needed to work up enough capital to start a family. A lot of people just never came up with the money they felt they needed in order to conduct a proper household.

The doom-and-gloom that *did* come true was the conservatives' fear of divorce: yep, we do have a 50% divorce rate. That rate has saved a lot of people from bad marriages, but the ease of divorce has also convinced a lot of people who wouldn't have otherwise gotten married to get married anyway. More people getting married hasn't "destroyed" marriage. It just means more people get married. The same panic happened when people started pulling down the interracial marriage laws. There were more marriages, more divorces, but the world didn't end. In fact, more marriages goes a long way toward improving the economy. I think expanding marriage rights would be a great economic strategy, really...

Because even with that 50% divorce rate, people still get married. Maybe cause we all keep hoping we can love forever, for longer, than any other group of folks in history. Believe me, the people living now are some of the first in the history of the world to have the opportunity to spend 70 years or more married. When we first thought up marriage, marriage was, at most, a commitment of 15-20 years. Usually more like 10.

I think what fascinates me is our expectation that we can live up to some far-off ideal, something that we think existed somewhere, somewhen, when everybody paired off perfectly and lived in harmony for 70 years with the love of their life.

No. You were lucky to end up with somebody who you respected and cared for and didn't beat you for 15 years before one of you dropped dead of influenza.

Man, I'm such a romantic.

My Boobs Make Me Smarter!

Great conversation over at Pandagon about advertising and breast augmentation.

Living Fiction

I just finished re-reading Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground. I read it and loved it when it first came out, lured by a stunning review of the book by Michael Moorcock.

This time around, as I re-read Veniss I started to think about what draws me back to particular books. I don't re-read a lot of books, but when I do, it's because there's some kind of emotional core to the story that speaks to me, something that claws at my heart and makes me go, "oh." I had different reasons, I thought, for loving some books and not others, but as I read, I realized there was something more to it, something that the ones I re-read have in common.

Oh, sure, there's the awesome stuff, too. Veniss is probably the most beautifully nightmarish city I've ever clawed through in fiction. People selling their parts for bread, programmers running a dying city, independent governments ruling various sections of the city, Living Artists who hack up themselves and others in the pursuit of the perfect organic creation, sludge-filled seas and vast underground caverns and weird, fantastic, horrible creatures that slurp and crawl and beg and grovel and fight and tear; creatures full of rage and sadness.

But there are other books that do a lot of great worldbuilding that I haven't re-read, that I thought were good or at least interesting reads, but never loved: Perdido Street Station, In Viriconium, Move Underground, Calenture, and Tainaron, to name a few. There are similiarly nightmarish qualities to The Book of the New Sun cycle as well.

The difference between books I like and books I keep returning to out of love (as opposed to reading to see how something was pulled off, technically, which you do a lot more of as a writer than a reader) has to do with how well it resonates with me. As a writer, this is sort of terrifying: you can cut yourself open on the page and put all the good stuff there, but unless you have a reader who's also bringing something to the table, emotionally, it's going to fall flat.

And it's true. When I looked at the few books I've reread: Veniss, Lust, The Hours, Flesh and Blood, The Etched City, The Affirmation, Dradin, in Love (I even went so far as to buy the hugely expensive Buzzcity Press edition) and The Book of Revelation, I realize that each of them touches on a core emotional truth or emotional journey that I can relate to in some way.

Veniss is told from three points of view: Nicolas, a selfish, starving "Living Artist" and compulsive liar who sells himself out to the mysterious crime boss-like Quin, creator of the city's most beautiful and terrible creatures. Nicola is Nicolas' twin sister, and works in one of the big highrises as a programmer who keeps all of the city's vital systems functioning and once worked as a sort of social worker/guide who helped people who won the lottery to come up from the level upon level of cities "down below" adjust to life in the above-ground city. Shadrach is Nicola's former lover, a man who spent the first twenty-four years of his life down below and fell in love with Nicola at the same moment he fell in love with the light, with the world above ground.

Nicola, in turn, fell in love with Shadrach:

His eyes held the light, except that somehow he made you smile. His eyes held you, and you found yourself thinking how odd it was that to find the light you must descend into darkness. He eclipsed your senses, and you still do not know whether you fell in love with him in that instant, at first sight, or whether it was his love for you, as radiant as the sun, that you came to love so fiercely.

But over time, her love faded as she realized he did not love her, but the idea of her:

Eventually, he became familiar to you, which you didn't mind, for no one can long sustain passion without the relief, the release, of domestic tranquility. What you could not tolerate was the inequality that crept up on you. It was the inequality of worship, for Shadrach mastered the city, became a part of it, and in this mastery he gained a distinct advantage over you, the resident, who had never needed mastery to make the city work for you... Somehow, you realized one day, as he surprised you with flowers and dinner at a fancy restaurant; somehow, instead of becoming more real to him, you had become less real, until you existed so far above him and yet so far below that to become real again, you had to escape - his body, his scent, his words.

On a bare bones level, this is a quest story: Nicolas gets himself into trouble with the mighty Quin, Nicola tries to rescue him and is, in turn, captured. Shadrach gives up everything and goes after her into Hell itself, down below, the place he never wanted to go back to. Because without Nicola - even a Nicola who he knows does not love him - he has nothing. He's lost the light.

Shadrach's journey is heart wrenching. He does literally descend into hell, full of bloody, flayed creatures, crimson light, millions locked in eternal, purposeless drudgery, piles of limbs, organs sold for bread, and he does it all to find a woman who does not love him.

There's a terrible moment when, after he's already shared her memories while she's comatose in order to find out who threw her into a donor scrap heap of body parts and left her for dead, that he knows with utter certainty, without a doubt, that she really, truly doesn't love him. And sure, he knew that all along. They've been apart for five years: but experiencing that from her point of view, to know it, to feel it, nearly breaks him. But even after all that, there's this moment:

... then he realized he had seen the forest in Nicola's head, in her mind. And he wondered whether there really was such a place above level. What if he had entered a series of dreams in her mind - of things that actually happened, but that were distorted, unsound, mirror images. For a moment, this thought disoriented him (didn't it mean she might love him after all?).

And this is, I think, why I keep coming back to this story. Because in the end, the guy doesn't get the girl. He does everything a hero should do in a fairytale. He fights for her. He loves her to the point of obsession. He goes out to avenge her. He fights the monsters and brings her back up into the light.

But when he looks at her in the end, under the stars, he does so knowing that she does not love him and will not love him. He did what he did out of love for her, knowing it wouldn't change anything (hoping, maybe, during the worst of it, but always knowing she did not love him).

It's a story that always makes me think about unconditional love, and hero tropes. After proving one's love, you're supposed to be rewarded. You're supposed to get the girl. That's the payoff. That's how it works, right? But in real life, no, it doesn't work that way, and even better: I think VanderMeer did a really fantastic job working from Nicola's POV and making us understand *why* it wasn't going to work that way. If we just got Shadrach's POV - here's the woman I worshipped, who I did everything right with, who scorned me - I don't think we'd understand. It's getting Nicola's POV that sells this, that explains why she can't love him. She can't be worshipped. She needs to be a real person.

And I think that was where I really connected with this story. I've loved people who didn't love me back, yes, and that makes the Shadrach parts of the book even more heart wrenching, but I have even more experience being somebody's Best Thing, being made up to be better than I am, to be perfect. And to have to turn away from someone because you feel you're being held up as something you're not, going from equals to unequals over the course of time, slowly losing yourself to someone else's idea of you... that's what I always connect with, every time. And the truth of that, of how that feels, always strikes me as terribly true, and terribly sad.

Sad, even more, because Shadrach realized, finally, what he loves so much about Nicola, something he's never told her:

So perhaps he had believed in symbols after all - perhaps the frame of the light as he ascended that first time drew him to her as it touched her body: blind moth to blinding flame. And maybe it was just this: when he came up into the light, the light shone upon her and she was not perfect. She had a face a trifle too narrow, a dull red birthmark between her thumb and forefinger, hair framing her face in tangled black strands. Such perfect imperfection, and he fell into her eyes because now, and only now, could he believe in this new world into which he had been reborn. It was populated with imperfect, beautifully imperfect, strangers, and how it had broken his heart that first time - to know that after so much darkness, the light could be so real, so alive. Not perfect, but real - all of it, the world, the woman, his life.

The paragraph above also illustrates something else that many of the books I've reread (particularly Lust and The Hours) have in common: a deep love for humanity in all of its imperfections. In Veniss, we're shown the full horror of human abuses and vices, and also shown what one person will go through for love. And then you get this sad, joyful acceptance - even love - of the good and the bad; of people, of life.

It is this, from The Hours:

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it's time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep - it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we're very fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.

And it's this doomed love of humanity; despite or because of all of our faults and miscommunication, that speaks to me most, that keeps me coming back to these sorts of books; this shared idea that sure, life can be crap, and it can be so lovely and light, and light or dark it's ours, it's what we have. We make do.

And hope for more.

It's this love that makes me fall in love with these books; it's the passion, the acceptance and celebration of imperfection.