Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Of writers and libraries


I've had some interesting experiences recently.  They have to do with libraries. 


But let me backtrack for a moment.  I learned, long ago, that, for a writer, libraries are, or should be, your friend.  When I started to write my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals -- though it didn't start out "medieval", exactly -- I was able to do a fair amount of initial research in my local city library.  And the librarians themselves were always extremely helpful.  They would go out of their way to help me get books, and even direct me to places where I could get news articles relating to what I was then researching.  And there's always Interlibrary Loan!


I was also cheered to discover that one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers, Ray Bradbury, started his writing career by renting a typewriter in a library near where he lived.  He typed much of his very first writing there.  And I remember my own library experiences as a child.  I remember one experience well:  reading a book about Marie Antoinette, curled up in a chair at my local branch, one warm summer early evening. Or reading library books that I'd borrowed, since we didn't have much money,to my young daughter.  She had her favorites, too.  I discovered the Narnia books there, another big influence in my writing life. And since then,I've discovered many people I know, have had similar experiences to mine.  So I tend to regard libraries as a public good.


But tough economic times now beset us, and as everyone knows, it's not just the national economy that's affected -- local ones are, too, and ours is no exception. The city of Seattle is facing a huge budget shortfall, and at the present time, it only looks like it's going to get worse. While the city is obligated -- and I'm sure everyone supports this -- to protect the budgets allocated to essential services like police and firefighters.  This takes up a fair portion of the budget,and is absolutely necessary.  However,this leaves a relatively small amount for other things, such as social services and libraries. When I recently attended a City Council meeting dealing with these budget shortfall and funding problems, as well as library supporters, of whom I am one, there were a large number of social agencies, all worthy in and of themselves, all crying out for the city to keep them funded.  In other words, the library and all these social agencies were fighting for the same small piece of the budget pie. 


The problem here is, in tough economic times like these, people use libraries more, yet the "instinct", if you want to call it that, for governmental bodies is, to cut funding for these groups and institutions; they tend to be looked at as disposable "frills".  And many people, often the most vulnerable ones, are adversely affected. Since there's a lot of unemployment around here, there are a lot of people looking for jobs. And they use the library,often to go on an online search(remember that, even in "wired" Seattle, there are still a lot of people without Internet access,or even computers). If there are budget cuts, these people will be adversely affected. Or maybe the user is an immigrant, trying to learn English, maybe working toward citizenship, and possibly supporting his or her family so his or her children can have a shot at a better life and education.  Or school and college age students, working on school assignments.  Or homeless people, trying to get out of the sometimes endless Seattle rains.  Even business people can often find things useful to their businesses, in local libraries.  And the library system, ideally, is there in good times and bad, for everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, income level, language proficiency, etc.


It was for this reason that I spent a good portion of Saturday at a semi-annual, and well-known local library book sale, soliciting signatures to present to the Seattle City Council on behalf of our local library.  The event is sponsored by Friends of Seattle Public Library, and I was soliciting signatures on their behalf.  The need is urgent as this snippet from the Friends' blog shows.  The tiny slice of funding for the Seattle Public Library is being cut drastically, which, they claim, will only cause a week's closure at the end of August, a time of low usage in any case. This happened once before, and the economic situation then, was nothing like as dire as it is now. And this slash in funding worries me, not just as a writer who uses libraries, but as a citizen.  As one of the people who gladly signed the petition I passed around said to me, "libraries are an indicator of the health of a local society and economy".  In other words, if libraries are in trouble,we are in trouble as a people.  If people can't get access to the kind of information they feel they need, then we are fast becoming a tiered society of information "haves" and "have-nots", and this, in my view, is not what the Founders of our nation had in mind.


So, while this blog is, and will remain primarily a writer's blog, and I will hasten to add I will avoid "controversial" issues not related to writing, I will be writing,from now on,and from time to time,about libraries and their uses.  It doesn't matter if you live in Seattle,some other part of the country, or some other part of the world.  No matter where you live, what that nice lady who signed my petition said is absolutely true. We, the people, need libraries. We need them for our economic, social,and emotional health.  And  we should all support efforts, wherever we are, to keep these institutions fully funded.

Anne G

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Neandertals were really variable

It seems like some geneticists have been working very hard, and a paper in PLoS One, an open-source science journal, has appeared online, free for anyone to download.  This paper apparently shows, with lots of charts and graphs and details that I haven't yet had time to read and digest, that there were at least three distinct Neandertal populations, spread over a wide area. These populations seem to have been genetically distinct in the same way that the various populations of "modern" humans are often genetically distinct. Which would make the various Neandertals more complicated, in some ways, than most people are inclined to believe.  But before anybody starts getting on the "races are real" bandwagon, re Neandertals or anybody else, I think more studies will probably tend to show, that Neandertals, wherever they happened to reside, had more in common with each other, than they differed -- just as "modern" humans do.


Is this "similarity" or "difference" from "us"?  I can answer the question for myself, but I am sure there are people who will answer this kind of question quite differently.

Anne G

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More "accuracy" musings

Nan Hawthorne has again brought up the problem of how "accurate" a historical novel must be, in order to be called a historical novel.  It's an interesting question.  She gives several examples, all of which she has read of novels that "change" historical events to greater or lesser degrees. 


I want to start this off,though, by sharing several things I've learned:  If someone reads a historical novel, and happens to be knowledgeable about the period the author is writing about, the reader is likely to notice even minor inaccuracies, be much more "critical", and in some cases, even reject the novel. 


Some readers claim to insist on "absolute accuracy". So do some writers, and this group tends to "prefer" either fictional biographies of the type written by Sharon Kay Penman(who is very good at what she does, BTW, but more details about her in another blog at another time).


A fair number of readers(and again, some writers) seem to like what I call "forsoothly" language to suggest a past time period.  One writer I recently read, calls this "gadzooks" language. These readers feel using this kind of "olde tymey" language is more "accurate". Usually this "olde tymey" language isn't anything near whatever the characters spoke in that period, and it's hard to do this well.  Most of the time, it's just plain annoying(at least to me), and it's probably better to use modern standard English(or modern standard of whatever language the writer is writing in).  By this, I don't mean slangy expressions, just plain standard formal English(or whatever)!  It's not as "accurate", but it may be less annoying to many readers. I should mention that one of the few times I've seen this use of "period" language done reasonably well was in the young adult novel Octavian Nothing.  But the author was replicating 18th century English, which, after all,is pretty close to our own. 


A fair number of writers, mostly of historical romances, fail to do proper research on the time period they're writing about, and this has tended to put historical romances in some disrepute.


Some writers(here Rite of Conquest, by Judith Tarr, comes to mind) take some "legendary" material and try to fit historical characters into this legendary material, giving them characters and motivations that as far as I can tell, they didn't have.  In the case of Rite of Conquest, it was um, an interesting read, but it sure wasn't history.  To be fair, I found this book in the sci-fi and fantasy section of a local bookstore, and the local libraries counted it as s-f/fantasy.  I guess you could call it "alternate history", another subgenre I generally don't like, but it is a genuine subgenre, and many readers like this kind of thing.


For the record, I have my opinions on this.  My Invaders trilogy -- I'm finishing the first draft of the last book, and writing the second draft of the first book -- is kind of a "hybrid".  It could be called a "historical novel"  because I've set it in historical time, and built it around actual historical events. A lot of the characters were real people, including one of the main characters: I've written this person as an "antihero", who wants to marry the principal female character,and who is decidedly fictional.  She is a Neandertal from a nearby "refuge" planet, but none of the real or fictional "earthly" characters are aware of this.  She and her companions have some, um, unusual abilities,as well.  This is pure fantasy, but in the heroine's case, I've tied it to a known medieval legend. I have also introduced  scientific and anthropological material, but, I hope, in such a way that the fictional and nonfictional medieval characters are not exactly aware of it.  For example, I describe DNA, but I give it another name, and again, the fictional and nonfictional medieval characters aren't exactly aware of it.  I try to stay "true" to the actual history, but I am not precisely writing a "historical novel". On the other hand, if someone picks up the book and reads it, my hope is that they will learn something about the period and events of that time, and, if interested, try to find out more.  So I try to stay accurate in that sense.


However, I know some writers are not so "accuracy obsessive"; Nan Hawthorne gives an example of a series where the hero of that series somehow is involved in and influences historical events. Is this going too far?  Well,I don't know. I suppose it would depend on how the series was written, and for whom.


I've also seen egregious errors like technologies that were not known at particular periods, or sacks of potatoes on Viking ships, or 15th century ladies drinking chocolate. I've seen even worse than that.  These authors just aren't thinking or they have become very,very careless in their writing.  I must say, however, that most writers trying to write historical novels, or novels of any genre, set in a historical period, at least try to be more careful than this.  Again, more on this in another blog. 


Finally, there is the whole question of whether or not the characters have the proper attitudes for their historical period.  This is really a very tricky question.  First of all, historians and historical writers, are writing about the past form their present. The attitudes of the historian's or historical writer's present cannot help but influence their writing, in my opinion. There is absolutely no way anyone can get away from that, though I think it is incumbent on  the writer(and here we are talking about historical writers), to try to be as objective as they can, and at least attempt to replicate the attitudes of the time they are writing about. will, once again, offer my own writing effort as an example. Illg(the heroine) does not have a "medieval mindset". She never entirely gets it, though she does adapt in certain ways, as do her "spacefaring" companions.  After all, their mission is to influence, but be inconspicuous about it.  However, the medievals, as far as I understand, and can get them to do so within the context of the story, have "medieval" mindsets.  However, I also bear in mind(as should any historical writer), that there were probably as many mindsets as there were people living in medieval times -- meaning that all people -- even the powerful -- didn't necessarily all "think the same" about any given subject.  Some historical novelists are incredibly obsessive about this, insisting that their characters would or wouldn't do things, based on the "mindset" of the period they're writing about.  And some book critics jump on the bandwagon.  I read a review, a few years ago, of the young people's book Sarah, Plain and Tall, where the critic claimed the heroine would simply not have done some of the things she is shown as doing.  Maybe she wouldn't have done these things in 19th century Boston, or even 19th century Seattle(if she was part of the "right" crowd in early Seattle), but on a farm in Iowa?  This, to me, is carrying the "mindset" idea way too far.


In the end, I think any historical fiction is going to end up being a blend of fiction and fact.  This is true even for fictional biographies, for often there are periods of the subject's life(even if that person is a very well-known historical character), that simply aren't available in the record, for one reason or another. So the author has to invent, often quite a lot. An author of historical fiction can invent, especially things like dialogue, and sometimes situations, and I think it's permissible in such cases, to rearrange minor historical sequences to get a better fictional "flow", or invent something plausible to fill in the gaps. if little is known about the character in question.  This, in my opinion, is not "going too far".  It is "going too far" to have characters meet who never met(if this is known), as per one of Ms. Hawthorne's examples, and have a grand romance. It is going too far to have characters acting in implausible ways for their time, place, and character.  But it is not "going too far", to write an enjoyable piece of fiction that weaves actual historical events into the lives of fictional people.  After all, isn't that fiction has always been about?
Anne G

Sunday, April 5, 2009

An interview with Ursula le Guin

Ursula  le Guin is one of my favorite science fiction writers. She recently gave an interview with an online science fiction magazine.  Ever since she came out with The Left Hand of Darkness, a tale about a planet where the beings there change sex for a very brief time and then go back to being "a-gendered" ,I've liked her. Unlike many science fiction authors, she hasn't been afraid to explore themes few others will take on. And while the ratio of female to male science fiction writers has gotten better(there are more female ones now, than when I was growing up), there are still fewer female than male authors, and many, though not all,of the female ones tend to write pure "fantasy". 


For the record, LeGuin is old-fashioned enough to dislike "sci-fi" as a descriptor. She insists on "sf".  Personally, I think both are acceptable, but then, I'm younger than LeGuin. 


I like LeGuin for several reasons:  As I said, she takes on social themes that not all writers of the genre do.  Particularly at the moment, there doesn't seem to be much "social" science fiction writing going on.  That is,there is a lot of "hard" science fiction, e.g. very "techy" stuff set in dysfunctional futures, or there are endless Tolkien fantasy clones, set in medieval-like worlds without any of the quirkiness or unpleasantness of the real thing. And then there are some interesting novels set in the future,where some horrible bioengineered plague of one sort or another  spreads over the planet. Some of these books are very well written, and well-thought out.  Robert Sawyer and Greg Bear come to mind. But almost no one writes about imagined societies that have  what might be called social structures "alternative" to the kinds we see on earth today.  One partial possible exception is Julie Czerneda.  In some of her books,she describes aliens with more or less "fantastic" social arrangements. But unfortunately, in the last book of the one series I read, it turned into space opera, and I gave up.  Basically, I don't like space opera very much.


Also, LeGuin is humane.  She really cares about the societies she makes up, and tries to see them, no matter how apparently unpleasant, as people. This is especially true in her "younger readers"series, like Earthsea. Furthermore, the people she imagines are not necessarily "European looking"(which, European looking though I am, I really appreciate). This is rare, and it seems  LeGuin has made a deliberate attempt to do this. I believe she was one of the pioneers in the field, in doing this. Unfortunately, making heroes and heroines of people not "like us" is still fairly rare, though non-European "supporting casts"  are more common now, than when I was growing up.


Finally, though her writing, she continues to speak out and reflect on society as we know it,and society as it might be -- some day. Unlike some science fiction writers, her writing is easy, and not "edgy", but still has an "edge" to it, that is well worth exploring, especially for ideas that perhaps have not yet been entirely articulated. I say hooray for this.  I am in awe of this.  Besides, isn't that what science fiction/s-f/sci-fi is supposed to do?  I wish I could say I do the same in my writing, but alas,I don't. Or at least I don't think I do.  I'm a different sort of writer. But again, aren't all writers, no matter what genre they write in,different in some subtle way,from one another?


Something to ponder,

Anne G

Friday, April 3, 2009

I'm tweaking the blog

I've actually been thinking about making the blog a little more attractive and readable for some time. So tonight I messed around with it for a while. I think the results are more easily read(better contrast), yet they harmonize with the template. Unfortunately, I couldn't change the background color to a prettier shade of green(or what I think is a prettier shade).  Apparently Blogger won't allow that, and unfortunately, the number of templates Blogger allows is rather limited.  That aside,I'm as satisfied with the results as I can be under the circumstances. I hope you, dear readers, are, too.

Anne G

Back to the Neander front

Neandertals are in the news again -- sort of. A researcher has reexamined what's left of the Krapina Neandertals, who were supposedly noted for eating each other.  They were discovered just over 100 years ago, by Gorjanovic-Kranberger, a native Croatian, who did very careful(for the time), work on them.  He seemed to think the bones were broken and scattered as they were, due to some cannibalistic feast, adding to the decidedly "brutish" image of Neandertals which had by then begun to take hold.  It would take the efforts of Marcellin Boule and his discussion of the by now famous or infamous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil, to fully crystallize this "brute" image, but Gorjanovic-Krambegrer's  cannibalism claims didn't help things any.  Unfortunately, this image remains to this day, though it is slowly weakening and being replace -- equally slowly -- by a much more complex picture of a group of people, apparently always a small population living in difficult circumstances, but as fully competent as "modern" humans, and as fully functional. 


Be this as it may, the researcher who reexamined the bones seems to think that the cutmarks found on the bones, represent something else. He doesn't say exactly what this might have been, but he strongly implies some kind of burial ritual was going on.  Some modern human groups practice burial rituals that involve ritual defleshing of the body, or secondary burial after a period of time. This might have been a practice among Neandertals, too, especially if they were trying to protect the dear departed from the ravages of scavenging animals(e.g. hyenas, wolves, bears, etc; they didn't have the technology for a deep burial pit). We have no way of knowing if they had burial rituals, though they appear to have been among the earliest of human groups to actually bury their dead. And despite the rigorous denials of some workers, it's known that at least some Neandertal sites contain obvious burials. But if they did practice rituals of any sort, including burials, then this would imply an ability to think symbolically, which would also probably imply speech and language -- something else the "Neanderstupid" crowd wishes to deny them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. 


Absent a time machine we will probably never know under what circumstances Neandertals buried their dead, nor what rituals they may have practiced. But this much is certain:  the more we study these long gone humans(and yes, they were human, if not "exactly" like "us"), the more complex and interesting they become.  I will leave you now with a picture to contemplate:


Anne G