Monday, June 26, 2017

Before Hogwarts, There Was Greyfriars

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Potterverse. Twenty years. Wow. Cheers!

I was too old to be swept up by Pottermania when it conquered the world, but if I had read the books when I was younger, I can easily believe they would have colonized my mind, laying eggs in my imagination like some conceptual xenomorph. So brava, Rowling! Brava!

And from a fellow writer's perspective, I've always been impressed by Rowling's skills. It's fashionable among uber-nerds to get all critical-theory and talk about cliches and overused tropes and blah-blah-blah. But a trope gets used because it works, and cliches don't start off that way. Katherine Trendacosta over at has written a handy article that makes those points and a few others.

But most bloggers usually overlook the real wellspring of Hogwarts: the school story. The school story isn't just a story set in a school. Clueless isn't a school story; neither is The Perks of Being a Wallflower nor The Betsy-Tacy High School Stories nor anything by Judy Blume. In fact, the school story as a genre had been dead for thirty years when, in 1997, JK Rowling brought it back to life...with magic.

To really understand the school story, you need to read some Orwell (sorry) - an essay called Boys' Weeklies. (And you could also read the book that started it all, Tom Brown's School Days, or the one that kind of stood it on its head, Stalky & Co.Basically, school stories are set at British boarding schools in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They're told from the point of view of the students; there are student intrigues, student types, sports madness, hallowed halls, prefects and houses, nasty teachers, sympathetic headmasters, and a variety of other tropes that get heavy use...any of this ringing a bell?
Stalky & Co

The school story was ultimately brought low by changes in British society - especially the collapse of the elite class assumptions that made the school story so appealing to so many readers who would never meet a baronet, let alone study at Eton. But for almost a century the genre was popular enough to support more than a dozen weekly magazines, not to mention novel series and movie and radio adaptations. In fact, Greyfriars, the setting of the school stories available in The Magnet, (which ran weekly from 1908 to 1940) had the same allure to readers that Hogwarts has today. There were maps of the school, detailed bios of the characters, notes on school history, a veritable Potterverse of subsidiary information.

The dissolution of the British Empire seemed to be the death blow to school stories. But then, when it looked like the genre was condemned to a ghostly afterlife attended only by literary scholars, Rowling substituted magic for the British class system, and brought it back to life. One genre writer to another, she is my hero.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Rockets and Space Suits and Blasters, Oh My!

Guess what the Internet Archive has?
Pdfs of great F/SF magazines of yesteryear. Dick, Knight, Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Matheson, Bradbury, Clarke, Bester...
Check it, droogs!

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Dead Speak From the Mists of History - Primary Sources!

A self-trimming lamp!
I'm getting tucked into Hero's Army, the sequel to The Wrong Sword. Among other things, HA deals with the Third Crusade. Here are some of the things I've researched:
  • The Banu Masu brothers and their Book of Tricks (a.k.a. Kitab al-Hiyal, a.k.a. The Book of Ingenious Devices)
  • The Greek mathematician, engineer, and polymath Heron of Alexandria
  • Komnenid Byzantium
  • Conrad of Montferrat, a.k.a. Conrad of Tyre, a.k.a. Conrad, King of Jerusalem
  • The Hashashin sect of the Nizari Ismaili Shi'i
  • Mamluks
  • The khanjar blade vs. the sica
  • Richard I of England, a.k.a. Richard the Lionhearted, a.k.a. Prince Yes or No
  • An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, a.k.a. Saladin
  • The Ayyubid purge of the Fatimid book collections of Al-Azhar
  • Moshe ben-Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides

That's a sica

That's a khanjar

I will probably do none of them justice, because you know...I'm a sloppy wiseass. That being said, I did uncover some interesting primary sources. What is a "primary source," you ask, as opposed to say, a secondary or even tertiary source?

A primary source is a document (or other informational artifact) from the time period you're studying - like, for instance, a letter from Queen Eleanor of England to Pope Alexander III. A secondary source is an analysis or distillation or retelling of primary sources, like a history textbook. As an author, I love primary sources. You are guaranteed to pick up details about how people thought, lived, and spoke that most historians neglect. Weird turns of phrase, odd biases, the tiny details that convey, if not fact, then verisimilitude.

A page of the Domesday Book: Hic Annotantur Tenentes Terras in Devenescire...
Turns out there are some neat primary sources on the Interwebz. Here are some of my current faves:
  1. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project: Letters and documents from dozens of different places and time periods. Translated, but otherwise unfiltered. My personal favorite? Liutprand of Cremona's Report of His Mission to Constantinople
  2. The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela
  3. The Book of Games of Alphonso X: Exactly what it sounds like. Descriptions of games they played in Alphonso's time
  4. Le Viandier by Taillevent: A cookbook from 15th Century France.
  5. What Befell Sultan YĆ»suf  by Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad: A chronicle of Saladin written by one of his close companions, and based on personal experience
  6. Maimonides' Letter to Yemen
  7. The Domesday Book - If for nothing else, a terrific source of Anglo-Saxon names. Guthwalda, anyone?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

James Comey Actually Made a Plantagenet/Becket Reference!

Becket gets a message from Henry
"Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest!?" screamed Henry II of England within earshot of four of his most eager minions - and that was all she wrote for Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry's hench-knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral and gave the soon-to-be-saint a case of terminal steel poisoning.
And now James Comey brings it up to describe 45's Mafia-style weasel wording.
Color me impressed!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Dog of Woo-Hoo!

I just sold my story, A Dog of Wu, to Fantasy & Science Fiction, the top speculative fiction magazine in the US. Let's all do our happy dance!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Aside from roads, bridges, and navies  (and health care - wouldn't health care be nice?) you get stuff like this.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Heinlein on Guns

A lot of folks know Robert Heinlein as one of the Big Names of the Golden Age of Science Fiction - from the 1930s to the 1950s. Some folks know his later, creepier stuff. And every Randian Objectivist nerd knows him as the guy who articulated their anarcho-libertarian power fantasies better than they ever could, from TANSTAAFL ("there ain't no such thing as a free lunch") to his famous dictum on guns: An armed society is a polite society. 

That's a quote from one of Heinlein's pulpier works, Beyond This Horizon, in 1942. It's gained enormous currency among gun enthusiasts since then, because it brilliantly encapsulates what might seem to be an obvious train of thought: People won't gratuitously insult, assault, or cheat someone who can kill them.

And that's too bad, for a couple of reasons.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

For International Women's Day: The First Alchemist

For my readers who are aficionados of the history of myth and magic:

Mary the Jewess, aka Mary the Prophetess, is considered the first true alchemist of the Western World. None of her writings survive, but her works, sayings, and inventions have been preserved in works by alchemists from al-Nadim to Zosimos.

Mary - probably Miriam, originally - lived sometime during the First to Third Centuries of the Common Era. Zosimos of Panopolis, a Fourth Century Gnostic Christian, is the first writer to mention her that we know of. 

She was said to be able to make caput mortuum (a purple dye that was a big deal among alchemists) and to have invented several pieces of alchemical equipment, some of which are still in use today - the bain-marie double-boiler, for instance. 

She also left us the following cryptic comments (everything the alchemists said was cryptic - go with it):

Join the male with the female, and you will find what is sought; and
One becomes Two, Two becomes Three, and out of the Third comes the One as the Fourth.