An A to Z of the fantastic city, by Hal Duncan

On the last day of Wiscon I was dashing through the Dealer’s Room buying books. I stopped at Small Beer Press for a few items, had a lovely chat with the folks there, and then noticed the small, pamphlet-sized volume on the table’s corner.

An A to Z of the Fantastic City, by Hal Duncan

I know of Hal Duncan’s work primarily as a blogger. A deeply funny, wickedly profane, sharply intelligent blogger. I first heard of him as That Scottish Sodomite, which, well, gives you an idea of the blog’s humor. I hadn’t heard of An A to Z of the fantastic city, and picked it up with enthusiasm.

Duncan’s work was the first thing I read upon getting home from Wiscon. I think this is because I had an impression that a collection of twenty-six short story-essays would be easier to digest than a novel. This was … a mixed presumption, on my part. An A to Z of the fantastic city is, indeed, composed of twenty-six short story-essays. But they are as easy or as hard as you let them be.

The collection is a guide, a travelogue, an encyclopedia of sorts, to unreal cities. But it’s more complicated than that. Heaven is listed here; so is London. Xanadu and Washington, Erewhon and Byzantium all have their place.

Time for an autobiographical digression.

Before I moved to Minnesota, I read an issue of the comic book Exaclibur in which our hero, Kitty Pryde, met her favorite band, Cats Laughing. The band members were Emma Bull, Steve Brust, Lojo Russo, and Falcon. Three of those people are real; I’ve met them. One is a fictional character created by another member of the band.

When I moved to Saint Paul for college, I read a book called War for the Oaks. In this book, the members of a struggling rock-and-roll band in Minneapolis find themselves embroiled in a war between the light and dark fae. There’s a war on in the streets of St. Paul, a war taking place in Como Park and at Minnehaha Falls. Our hero meets the fae queen at the top of the Prospect Park lookout tower. The showdown takes place at a Battle of the Bands inside the First Ave nightclub.

It was, I think my second MiniCon before I saw the band Cats Laughing play. I saw Emma and Steve and Lojo, with a drummer whose name I do not recall but who was not an alien prince on the down-low. As far as I know. I’ve climbed down the stairs and stood at the foot of the Falls, I’ve been to the Como Park Conservatory many times, I’ve attended shows at First Ave. And none of this reality has ever managed to eradicate the fictional lives these places and people had in my mind before I ever met them.

Hal Duncan understands this.

Hal Duncan knows that the world is a palimpsest of experience, that reality is the fictions we lay on it. He knows, as Elizabeth Bear said at a Wiscon panel on Sunday past, that history has no narrative; we impose one on it. And if that narrative contains goblins and elder gods, so be it.

I’ve never been to Byzantium. But I have been to the fantastic city of Byzantium. I’ve never been to Oxbridge. But I have a perfect map of it in my head, I know its stones and lanes and I know the river and its punts.

An A to Z of the fantastic city is a guidebook. But I fully expect that half of you already have been to half these places. You know them as well as Mr. Duncan or I do. Which makes this book not only a guide, a record of things for the unfamiliar, it makes it a series of love letters you might have written once, a long time ago, and forgotten.

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Panel report: Antiheroism Defined

This Wiscon panel was held at 4:00 on Friday, early in the con. I personally felt fresh and rested, and also totally unprepared, both at the same time.

The room, when I got there, wasn’t set up yet for panels. Me being me, I started setting up all the chairs.

The Mod was Victoria Janssen, with panelists Rosemary, Lesley Hall, Chris Hill, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. (I didn’t always attribute remarks in my notes.)

From the outset, I disputed some of the assumptions of the discussion. Heroes were labelled unflawed, antiheroes flawed. Antiheroes were described as easier to identify with, heroes more difficult or distant. Antiheroes were described as the ones who get to be snarky and witty, heroes not so much.

As the panel progressed it became clear that these were a, a gloss, not the actually deeply-held premises of the panel. Whew.

Antiheroes, it was discussed, break the social compact. They are transgressive. Think Anya of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — she doesn’t know the social rules, and largely has no interest whatosever in following them. She’s not breaking them to make some sort of point, she just can’t be bothered.

This led into a line of thought that I like — antiheroes are largely orthogonal to heroes and villains. Antiheroes are the characters who simply have different goals than heroes.

The example used for a great deal of this part of the discussion was Rick from Casablanca. Rick is selfish. That is his motivation — Rick looks out for Rick and Rick’s Stuff. He performs action in the films that might be mistaken for heroism. But they are not in service of justice, or right, or good. They are in service of being left alone to continue on as he wants. Towards the end, when he gets involved with larger issues, it’s for entirely personal reasons. He never supports the cause.

The Sliding Scale of Anti-Heroes from TV Tropes was brought up. If one is looking to define individual characters on a Villain-Antihero-Hero scale, TV Tropes really has that entire conversation wrapped up. There’s not much to add to it, unless you want to go join TV Tropes and fall down the rabbit hole. The panel discussion, therefore, didn’t much go in that direction. (I highly recommend the TV Tropes conversation. But give yourself a few hours to explore it all.)

At some point it became clear that the panel was using two very different definitions of antiheroism at the same time. The first was the orthogonal antihero — the self-interested or selfish character who does good as a side effect of what they actually want. The second was the character who has good in mind as the end goal all along, but commits bad acts to get there. I pointed this out, everyone kinda nodded and agreed that, yes, those are two valid definitions.

I think writers and editors should be aware of this in their antiheroes, and know what sort they intend to be using when they are contemplating a work.

I asked what the difference was between an antihero and a hero on a redemption arc. When we meet Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly, he once was a hero. By the end of the extant stories, he’s a hero again. But at the time we meet him? Not so much. This, to me, is very different from a true antihero. Mal is pretending to be an antihero, or even a villain, because he’s so hurt and angry about what happened the first time. No-one had a really strong answer, but the intial thought was that the difference is in how they develop as a character.

A final note, near the end of the time, was that the Heist Genre is populated almost solely by antiheroes. If they are your cup of tea, that’s where to look.

Back from Wiscon

I am home from the convention. Since returning I have unpacked half my things, done a load of dishes, and spent lots of time with my family. This morning we’re heading out to the Y.

My convention was great.

Each year I find that an unofficial theme coalesces out of the convention for me. Some years I share that theme with other people who feel the same way, some years it is strictly personal. This year’s theme was strictly personal, and is summarized by Randall’s Crazy Nastyass Honeybadger video. On a related note, I need to learn more about Baba Yaga.

I saw a number of amazing people and had great conversations. I won’t list all of those here, because I will forget someone and then we will both be sad. I did miss talking to some people I meant to get to, dangit. Saladin Ahmed? I really meant to tell you in person how amazing your book is, but I think we were cross-programmed on *everything*. Jed Hartman? I’m glad I got to say hello as I was literally walking out of the hotel, but I hope to chat more next year.

There were more. There were others I didn’t get a chance to talk to. But the truth of it is, I love the social at Wiscon but I love the panels about 3% more, and the panels win in scheduling conflicts.

The Chicks Dig Comics party was a riot, figuratively. Though it was as loud as one. A decibel meter was brandished at the height of events — average level, 87 Db, peaking every few minutes over 100. Riot-levels.

I must admit, I had expected people to drink the same amount of alcohol as they normally do at Wiscon, and was not anticipating that the form factor would alter the quantity. But apparently test tube shots encourage rapid and heavy consumption. Kudos to our bartenders, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, who started offering refills early on. Thus we did not run out of test tubes.

And my thanks to Brit Mandelo and the Beyond Binary party for taking all the left-over supplies off of our hands. I had sworn a mighty mickle oath to my partner that I would NOT store booze in our basement for another year, and Brit let me keep my promise.

I left Wiscon exhausted, my brain full of half-conceived plans, my head aching from not enough sleep, and the coming year full of promise. So, just like every other Wiscon year for me.

My thanks to all of you I saw and met and talked to and had dinner with. My thanks to all the panelists who made me think — perhaps especially to the ones who pissed me off and made me reconsider my position. My thanks to the concom and the volunteers who make this work so well each year.

Good con, y’all.

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Wiscon, y’all

It’s Monday morning of Wiscon as I write this. I have a few things left to do — the Sign-Out, packing up my stuff, packing the truck — and then I’m out of here.

I miss my kids so very much. I am looking forward to seeing them.

The people who I already knew to be amazing, articulate, smart, and wonderful were as I expected. I met some new-to-me folks this year who also impressed. That’s the neat thing about Wiscon — the smart and articulate just doesn’t stop.

I don’t know if I’ll have a ton to say about the panels this year. Many were pleasing to me, but I’m not sure how to convey that to others. And the one panel that made me ragey, well, I was talked down a bit by the extremely sensible point of view provided by a friend also at the panel.

Your mileage may vary, and I don’t really need to go around judging other people’s experiences. (Well, apparently I DO, but I don’t need to share that with you all.)

Off to go find tea and maybe food before the first panel of the morning. See you around.

Wiscon Friday morning

So it’s Friday morning and the convention has not actually started yet.

I suppose I could have started pre-convention socializing last night. There were certainly people available for same! But I had gotten up at 4:30 yesterday and by the time I finished dinner I was useless for civilized conversation. We went back to the hotel room, played on the internets, and watched Deathly Hallows part II on the hotel television. (HD tv is weird and unnatural, and I don’t really like it.)

This morning I woke up at 5:00.

This is not a spectacular omen for my rest and sleep the rest of the con. But I never sleep well in hotels, sadly. It’s a known thing.

At any rate, this allowed for a pre-con workout and a leisurely breakfast before most people got here.

Oh! My kids sent two stuffed Pokemon, Munchlax and Snorelax, with me on the trip. They (my kids, not the Pokemon) requested photos of their proxies here at the convention. Hence the posting to Twitter of numerous pictures of same.

Further updates as events warrant.

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May 24 2012

1. I am leaving for Wiscon today. \o/

2. I am bringing a crapton of stuff.

3. K had her first Clowning class yesterday. I was very, very pleased to hear from her afterwards that it appears to be Intro to Theater Comedy and Improv. Yes! Not merely goofing off for a very expensive hour. The instructor talked to them about establishing character, and audience expectations. I am pleased.

4. We’re in the season of the year containing constant threat of severe weather, especially in the evenings. J and I are always checking the weather radar online.

5. The kids are sending a wee stuffed Munchlax and a wee stuffed Snorelax with me on my trip. The kids always really miss me, and I always super-miss them. It will be nice to have the stuffed Pokemon with me. Expect tweets.

6. Next update, Wiscon.

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Greg Rucka’s Alpha

Greg Rucka’s latest book, Alpha, is what I hope will be the first in a series of books about a new character, Jad Bell. The premise, like those of most Rucka books, is deceitfully straightforward. Bell, a military man of some ambiguous nature, is hired to protect an amusement park from a vague terrorist threat.

Complications ensue.

That premise tells you nothing about the twists and turns the plot take, the crosses and double crosses. It tells you nothing about the supporting characters and their roles in said plot. I will summarize by saying that there is not a single moment in this book where I felt lost, nor a single moment where I felt I could safely put the book down. That’s a hard line to ride in an action-packed novel. I’m not at all surprised to see Rucka do it again.

If you like smart, intelligently-written, real-world-style action stories about military dudes vs. terrorists, you should already be reading this book. It’s a shoo-in, a perfect fit. You will love it.

But there is so much more to Rucka’s writing. So much that is rewarding, so much depth and emotional truth.

The secret about Rucka’s work, the secret which isn’t a secret at all and which he tells people at every opportunity, is that he thinks all of his characters are people. Every twist and turn in Alpha is a result of thoughtful character-driven action. The people in his books want things, they fear things, they have agency. The plot is the result of that agency.

I read an interview recently with Elizabeth Bear about her new novel, Range of Ghosts. She was asked about something, and I don’t recall the question, but in response she explains that one of the bravest moments in the book is when a princess — not a lead character, not so far — decides to leave her home in the night. She is barefoot, she is terribly young, she is heavily pregnant.

This may seem an odd choice of bravery, in a book that features warriors and wizards. But warriors and wizards are trained to deal with moments of extreme danger or decision. They have planned and prepared. A teenage princess, faced with this situation, is making it all up as she goes. It’s the human, everyday bravery that makes me pause, that chokes me up a bit.

All through history, normal, everyday people have had to flee when bad things happened. We deal with it and move on, or we don’t. And we are remembered for what we did, either way.

There is a scene, in Alpha. The bad things have already started, and Jad is running across the amusement park to deal with events. On the way he encounters Lilac and three kids. Lilac is the name of a character at the amusement park. She is played by a pool of young women, eighteen-to-twenty-two years old, perhaps. Cheerleaders and gymnasts, we’ve been told earlier, who can act and who never lose their temper or break character.

Horrible things are in progress, and Lilac is escorting the three kids to safety. In the scene that follows, she is smart, she is decisive, and she never breaks character. Neither Bell nor the reader ever learn her name. She remains Lilac the meerkat, the heart of the Flower Sisters.

This is a bit-part, a scene midway through the book. Yet the essential humanity and agency of this character is the most important thing in the scene. Yes there is action, guns, whatever. Without us caring about Lilac, we have a pedestrian moment of good guys and bad guys and, oh noes, wee kids in danger, yawn. With Lilac, we have Jad and her — two human beings in terrible circumstances who must trust each other and make insanely smart decisions without enough data, with human life on the line.

That scene captures, for me, why I read every Greg Rucka book, comic, interview, or pamphlet I can find. He never, ever forgets that he is writing about people. Good guys, bad guys, muddling-along middling guys who just want to go home, they are all comprehensibly human. That is a rare, fine, incandescent thing, that Rucka does. It is always worth your time and money.

The fact that the plots barrel along is purely a bonus.

Normally, I would end a blog post like this with an explanation of who I think would like the book, and who it’s not for. But I think everyone should give Rucka’s work a chance, even if — especially if — you think it’s not a genre you typically enjoy, or it sounds like it might not be for you. Try it, try one, give it a shot. Fistful of Rain is about an alcoholic rock star and some blackmail. Keeper is about a bodyguard. Batman No Man’s Land is about Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle. Or go ahead and jump in with this latest book, the one I devoutly hope will start another series, Alpha.

Go on, give it a shot. You won’t be bored.