Fantastic Defenders

momotaro enlists allies

Momotaro enlists allies: a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. [Project Gutenberg]

I have recently served as co-editor of a short story anthology, Fantastic Defenders, with my fellow writer, David Keener. The official release was during Balticon. I had fun writing the introduction, and here it is, to give you an idea of what the book’s aim is:

One place to begin, in talking about fantastic defenders, is the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro”: a childless old woman finds a beautiful peach floating down a stream and she takes it home to her husband; the peach suddenly splits open and a miraculous baby boy is inside. When the boy grows to fifteen years old, he hears of the people of northeast Japan being terrorized by demons who arrive by sea to pillage, kidnap, and murder. Momotaro determines that he will be their defender and fight the demons.

Or, if you prefer, look at Beowulf: the young man hears of a land being tormented by the man-eating monster Grendel and he sails from his home in Geatland to offer himself as defender to King Hrothgar.

As for the “fantastic” part, while it points to the story having fantastical elements, the defender often does not have any magical powers—but still may have to oppose supernatural creatures. Momotaro may be a gift from heaven to a deserving couple, but no special powers are given to him. Beowulf relies on his courage and his great physical strength.

In these two exemplar stories, we can discern the nature of the defender, who:

• is compassionate and feels intensely the distress of others;
• may defend an individual, but frequently is defending an entire people; and
• possesses an extraordinary firmness of will and clarity of purpose, and does not waver or give up.

Every defender will not perfectly fulfill all of these traits, but this is our starting point.

The struggle against despair is a frequent theme in stories of fantastic defenders. Sometimes it is an inward struggle, a personal dark night of the soul. Or despair permeates an entire community; a people have lost the ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence. The defender is the enemy of despair.

To point to another well-known defender, Gandalf does have magical powers—he is a wizard and also possesses one of the rings of power. Yet his actions with the greatest impact, for all his ability to bring down bolts of lightning on foes, are in discernment and hope. He counsels and persuades Theoden to resist and fight rather than surrender to hopelessness; he rallies scattered forces to return and fight; dread flees from his presence because his courage and steadfast commitment heartens people.

And here’s another: Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence—in spite of his cherubic demeanor, tendency to giggle, and dithering over ordering a flaming rum punch or mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”—proves to be a determined, indeed, a steely and almost cruel defender against despair. He allows George Bailey to see an alternate future in which he never existed: a brother dead in childhood; his mother old, embittered, poor; his uncle in an insane asylum; and most painfully, his never-wife Mary alone, childless, not recognizing him. This is tough love at the highest setting.

It’s rather fun to put Clarence in the company of Gandalf, Beowulf, and Momotaro. But something even more unusual is under the surface of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the process of saving George, Clarence doesn’t just keep him from jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He enables a revelation: it turns out that George is the defender of the town of Bedford Falls, and has been ever since he took over the family building and loan after the death of his father.

As the alternate-reality scenario later makes explicit, the fate of Bedford Falls depends on the outcome of the struggle between the predator, Mr. Potter, and the defender, George Bailey. George makes a blunt assessment of what’s at stake very early in the story, when he hears the town banker call for the Bailey Building and Loan to be shut down: “My father…did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter… People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle… This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”

And yet, somehow, George remains largely unconscious of his calling as a defender. Momotaro knows what he’s set out to do. So do Gandalf and Beowulf. George, however, doesn’t see the latent, ghostly potentiality of Pottersville, awaiting the moment when the will of its would-be maker is free and unopposed, ever ready to manifest itself and grow into merciless and degrading reality. George runs his business, makes loans, celebrates the new houses of his friends, and all the while his life is a disappointment to him. Distracted by his regret for the adventurous life he never achieved, he misses the big picture of his purpose in family and community.

That awareness comes as part of the climax on Christmas Eve, when George faces despair and sees what it means to not be there, to not take action. How interesting it is for the audience to see the hero’s purpose—which is usually presented early to drive the story—arrive so late, and yet be so satisfying!

We have stretched the definition of a fantastic defender and ventured outside the confines of genre by including George Bailey. He does not face a supernatural foe. But look again at Beowulf’s enemy, Grendel. Why does he hunt and murder the Danes? Because the sound of music and joy coming from the beautiful hall Heorot arouses his anger and hatred, directed against the people inside. In terms of character psychology, Grendel’s estrangement from mankind seems strangely similar to Mr. Potter’s.

So, step into the circle, George Bailey. Shake hands with Beowulf, but do be mindful of his powerful grip.

One last thought. Why do we love stories of fantastic defenders? Here is a possible answer, first provided by G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already,” he wrote. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This idea was paraphrased more succinctly by Neil Gaiman as “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Chesterton and Gaiman are speaking of stories about fantastic defenders, the ones who see rapacious and violent enemies and refuse to flee, will not lay low. They run toward the terrors. We admire them and take heart from their courage. And it is with pleasure that we offer the stories of Fantastic Defenders. We hope that the stories do justice to the spirit of real defenders everywhere.

 

Balticon: The Social Side of Writing

soot sprite

My very own soot sprite, purchased at Balticon.

Just got back from Balticon on Monday, and I was thinking about the wonderfully various array of activities and people, and what a great experience it is for a writer to get out and mingle.

And that led me to think that there’s a missing part to the standard exhortation “To be a writer, you must write.”

It makes more sense to say, “You must write and you must be read.” Writing is communication, and communication doesn’t happen until the message has been received by someone, who then responds. It’s a conversation.

“Write and be read” is only half of a conversation, the sending-forth part. “Read and listen” is the other part, where you receive, think about, and react to others’ ideas. If you speak or write without listening or reading, you’re only communicating with yourself. The writer and what is written both need to interact with other writers and other texts.

There is a social side of writing, which is why we gather. Balticon and the other cons aren’t the only ways that a writer can socialize. There are writing groups, too. They focus on the writing. But cons bring together the greater community — writers, editors, artists, agents, readers, fans — all of whose voices make up a larger conversation.

[Oddly, “social media” is weak in this respect, usually being declamation rather than conversation.]

I think that there is a connection between a writer who is social and a writer who is read. First of all, at cons you meet people who become curious about your writing, and you may also find sources of new ideas. But on another level, when you meet and listen to other writers, you and your writing are out there in the world, impacting and colliding with all those other writers and their ideas, getting stronger and gaining confidence.

Join the conversation.

giphy

Soot sprites leaving. Meeting new people is not for them.

Let the Coast Guard Handle This

363px-punch_davy_joness_locker

Davy Jones’ locker: much pleasanter to say than “drowned”

I don’t do reviews of short fiction anymore, for a number of reasons. For one, see Neil Clarke’s column from last year, i.e., lack of impact.

However, just for fun, why not give a little nod toward recent stories, such as last week’s “A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea” by Ada Hoffmann at Strange Horizons?

When your lover drowns, please don’t cast a spell;
They’re finicky and monkey-paw-ish, and, well,
He’s dead, you know—so have a long talk with mom
And update your profile at Match.com.

Clarion

I’m taking part in Clarion West’s Write-a-thon starting today, and it goes for 6 weeks. My goal: I’ll be working on a YA novel, and trying to improve my skills in story development. You can see my profile here.

I also want to increase my daily word count, but I can only do that by getting better at knowing where a story is going.

Not to make this all about me, the Write-a-thon is Clarion West’s summer fundraiser. Roping in all these outsider writers makes the event a bit of a self-help experience for writers who are not part of the actual workshop, more fun and interesting than just handing over a donation.

And, in case you don’t know anything about Clarion West, it’s a writing program specifically for writers of science fiction and fantasy.

I’m crossing my fingers that the blog won’t be me talking to myself for the next 6 weeks, so I hope others will drop by and say hi. If you like, give your own thoughts about how you (if you are a writer) conceptualize and build a story from the starting idea. And if you are a reader rather than a writer, maybe you have thoughts on the genre, what you like, and what makes a weak, newly hatched idea gather its strength, spread its wings, and take wing.

“We would be living in a different world” (WWII alternate history)

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

This circa 1938 poster reads: “60,000 marks is what this person, who suffers from a hereditary defect, costs the people’s community during his lifetime… Read ‘A New People’, the monthly magazine of the Bureau of Race Politics…”

When you read the historical accounts of HItler’s stunning military triumphs of 1939-1940, when you watch the old newsreel clips and look at the maps showing Nazi Germany’s rapid conquests, it is easy for your attention to be riveted solely on this aspect of the war. The shock, even from today’s perspective, is such that you can’t even conceive of a greater threat than military defeat and disaster.

Churchill, however, did see this greater threat, and he articulated it in his speech to the House of Commons on June 18, after France had asked for an armistice with Germany. He conjures two starkly different futures — first, victory:

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

or defeat:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Churchill saw what could be — and this was before the death camps came into being. In hindsight, we can also clearly see that if Hitler had won the war, we would be living in a different world* — i.e., Churchill’s second image.

Can you imagine your society transformed, the Aryan race the rulers, all other lesser races servants and slaves, and Jews exterminated? Can you imagine this: that this condition is not just a tyranny imposed by brute force, but belief inculcated in people’s minds? Belief in Nazi ideology was one of Hitler’s most important efforts in Germany during the years of 1933 to 1939. Can you imagine an immense occupying army and bureaucracy sworn to his service, not a country’s? Tens of thousands of people forced to work as slaves in labor camps? A division of the government dedicated to the efficient identification, classification, collection, killing, and disposal of civilians?

One minor fact that staggers my mind is that when the gas chambers and crematoria were conceived and the plans drawn up, the designs were patented. Does this make you afraid of how minds can be deformed? Can you imagine?

And, regarding “perverted science,” let us consider what else Hitler’s scientists had in the works: nuclear fission and missiles.

Yes, we would be living in a different world — the Nazi system and ideology still alive and operating, immensely powerful, carrying out its vision, and extended over Europe and America.

Imagining that world is what Philip K. Dick attempts to do, in The Man in the High Castle, which I will discuss next.

[*I have borrowed this phrase from Michael McMenamin, in his review of John Lukacs’ Five Days in London.]

Alternate History: World War II

January 30 parade

A grim 80th anniversary approaches: on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The photo above shows a celebratory torchlight parade in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30. President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor, looks out the window.

It was the beginning of an unimaginable inferno. With the Enabling Act in March 1933, the German Parliament was largely excluded from power for the next 4 years and so Hitler went from chancellor to dictator. The numbers of men in the German army immediately began to increase, and in only two years the army had trebled in size. (It would increase 7-fold by the time war came.) The execution squads began their work in 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives. And on it went, the Third Reich, gathering power and momentum, until it seemed unstoppable.

I’ve been reading a good bit of history of World War II for the past year. I’m not sure what started me down the path, if it was anything specific at all. I think it is simply the complexity of it, the many different strands of events and people and beliefs and the colossal effort and sacrifice that went into it.

My father was in the Navy during the war; he served on an escort carrier, the USS Long Island, a converted cargo ship. He describes, somewhat sparely, the ship’s war duties as “We carried airplanes to Pearl Harbor, and we carried wrecked planes back to San Diego.” That tells a good bit — about the grueling nature of the Pacific war, and the sad loss of life. My father was fortunate enough to return home; one of his cousins, however, also in the Navy, was killed in a kamikaze attack.

For my job at a professional society, I occasionally have to write an obituary of a member who’s passed away. A year or so ago, when I called a widow to find out a little something about her husband, I found out that he had been born in Central Europe, had been 15 years old when the Nazis overran his country, had been taken from his family and placed in a labor camp, had escaped and was eventually helped by the Underground to cross occupied Europe and France to eventually reach England over a year later. He also met his wife-to-be at that time. He enlisted in the armed forces there and fought the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. Then he went to college and became an insurance actuary and came to the US. It was, to put it mildly, the most interesting obituary I’ve ever written. It’s a good life, when you’ve counted for something at the end.

The reach of WWII was vast. It was one of the great “hinges of fate” of the world (to borrow Churchill’s phrase). In the subgenre of alternate history, it is one of the two most-written-about periods of history, because so much was hanging in the balance. (The other time period much used for alternate history fiction is the American Civil War.)

So for February and maybe longer, I’m going to explore the alternate history stories that deal with World War II. Up to now, I haven’t read much of this subgenre. I read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over 30 years ago, but I’ll have to re-read it.

The question is, Will these works really have anything to say about the war; will they show the futures that could have been, and illuminate what did happen? Or will there just be easy Nazi villains, so convenient to play against heroes? Will there just be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing? Because there really doesn’t seem to be any point in alternate history, unless to have characters grapple with serious political and moral issues.