I would have stayed on Livejournal forever

Somebody bought me a permanent account — an anonymous person, in 2005. And I really would have stayed there as people left in droves, through thick and thin, through changes in format and bad service and whatever. I had all those years of journal, and I had a friendslist where I could see how people were doing, even if it wasn’t as vibrant as in older times and more people were lured away. But I can’t take terms of service that mean I can’t talk about politics and I have to put warnings for any mentions of any LGBT stuff. That’s just unacceptable.

Six transit gloria internet. I still miss usenet. Well, we go forward.

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia.

I have just spent the entire day doing triage on fifteen years of posts and putting any of them that were worthwhile here. (The poetry was here already, in the poetry section.) I didn’t bother with the wordcount posts, or things I thought were trivial. Sometimes I’ve consolidated things — like making all the posts about one trip into one post for better chronology.

I will be posting here. It’s in my control, and nobody will suddenly change the terms of service on me. I don’t know how often I’ll post or whether anyone will be reading. I’ll try to figure out how to turn comments on for this blog bit only, without turning them on everywhere.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

10th November 2016: How I feel when people reference Farthing

Generally if something in the world causes somebody to think of something I have written, it’s delightful. It means I’ve succeeded in encapsulating something, in finding a way of describing something that’s useful to somebody. Something I’ve written has helped the world make more sense.

I remember when I was a teenager and somebody I didn’t care for was in love with me while I was in love with somebody who was in love with somebody else. This reminded me of something at the time, and I realised it was Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and sat down and I re-read it and cheered myself up instead of continuing to be miserable. (Some people call this “escapism”. They’re idiots.) I eventually got over being in love with that person. (I wonder where he is now, and whether he remembers I exist? Probably not actually. I hope he’s happy. It’s so weird to think he’s my age, when he’ll always be sixteen and golden in my head.) I got over it, as I said, and the person who was briefly in love with me (hi if you’re reading!) got over it even more quickly, but I still think the description of that dilemma in I Capture the Castle is absolutely spot on. And I still have the book and I still read it. So if my writing does that recognition thing with something, anything, for somebody, it feels great.

Usually.

This summer, my French editor emailed me to say that the Small Change books were referenced in Le Parisien and Aujourd’hui — major French papers. And what they were saying was that these books were essential and unmissable if you wanted to understand Brexit. If you wanted to understand how Britain could be insular and inturned and petty and racism and fascist. I soon heard that German papers were saying the same thing.

And now I am seeing people saying that the situation with Trump being elected is reminding them of Farthing.

It’s good, really, to have given people a way to think about something. We learn through stories, and fiction can often really help because it is shaped and simplified and given emotional context in the way history often isn’t. And alternate history can be particularly great for teaching historical lessons, because we already know what really happened, and in alternate history events can come around a corner and surprise you. So it’s good… but…

I just wish that thing wasn’t fascism.

If there’s any book I wrote that I wish was obsolete and that people would never be reminded of in any real world context, it’s Farthing. “Gosh, that’s dated,” I wish people would say about it. It wasn’t supposed to be a prediction. It wasn’t supposed to be an instruction manual. (The actual specifics of the post-Brexit shuffle and May etc really are scarily like what I have in the book.)

People who don’t read Science Fiction imagine that it predicts the future. People who read it know that it doesn’t, that while Octavia Butler might have predicted a demogogue with the slogan “Make America Great Again” as part of a dystopic background, but that doesn’t mean we’re living in the world of Parable of the Sower. What SF actually does for its readers is let them know that the future won’t be the same as the present. It doesn’t prepare you for one future, it prepares you by giving you multiple futures for the unexpected weirdness that lies ahead and will be the one and only real now by the time we’re living in it. It’s a strange world. But it’s always a strange world. And we don’t know the future, and nobody ever did, but we know it won’t be the same as now or the way we imagine.

Just as SF extends trends in the present, so things in the real now do recall for us things in SF, like Butler’s slogan. Post-Brexit, an MEP from Luzemburg proposed that EU citizenship could be given to individual British people who didn’t want to give that up. And as well as thinking “Please, please, please…” I thought that this was like a step towards the Hive system in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning where a very different EU is part of the power system in the future and where citizenship in anything is by opting in.

We’re never going to get that exact world with its flying cars and religious censorship, no more than we have Heinlein’s Martians or Cherryh’s spacestations. But just as I was prepared for iphones by a Heinlein character leaving his switched off in his bag so his mom couldn’t call and a Brunner character using the map on his until it goes dead, bunches of things I’m reading in today’s SF will be doing the same thing for me tomorrow.

But not fascism, OK?

I guess that means I’m past grief and denial and into bargaining.

On a more cheerful note. Fiction can teach us wrong lessons. One of the things we see in fiction is evil being much more competent and efficient than it ever is in reality. Some people think evil isn’t real. It is. Auden, writing in 1936, said:
“Maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now.
Nanking. Dachau.”
and he didn’t know the half of it with Dachau, but it broke my heart reading that in 1981 and realising that he even knew half of it. One of the things I wanted to do with the Small Change books is look at the real evil there and answer the question of how people came to do it, people, not monsters. How do good people do evil things? It’s so difficult to understand. How did actual women hear Trump saying “grab them by the pussy” and still move their actual hands on a ballot paper to vote for him?

I have been fortunate in not knowing all that many evil people, so I tend to base a lot of them on my mother. Some people never knew any evil people at all and so they can’t write about them. McCaffrey would be an example. And the evil dark lords in some fantasy novels are laughable. You know what, it’s amazingly wonderful that we live in a world where some people can believe that. Go them. I’d like to spread that privilege Anne McCaffrey enjoyed more widely, not take it away from her. But right now. Well. Onward and upward.

In Farthing, I gave Lucy’s evil mother a really efficient and sane secretary who loved her, to keep her pointing in the right direction, as my own evil mother never did. In Among Others where the mother is a lot closer to my actual mother, I had Mori quote Tokien “Oft evil will doth evil mar” and said you can’t count on it, but it does often happen. If you learn from books how evil is omnicomptent that’s because it makes for better shaped stories. In reality Tolkien was totally right about evil will screwing itself up a lot of the time. Evil isn’t any more competent than we are, and often less so because of a greater tendency to shoot itself in the foot or betray long term for short term gains. It can be defeated. And the good people doing evil things, sometimes they need to hear that this isn’t the end and they still have souls and there is a way from here to there.

There is a tendency also found in fiction to embrace despair and cynicism because it’s easier, what I called in yesterday’s poem “the soft temptations of despair”. People like the tragic ends of Farthing and Ha’Penny more than (spoilers!) the positive end of Half a Crown maybe because I didn’t do it as well, and maybe I didn’t because I was going uphill against the weight of narrative expectation and that’s hard. But it’s how fascism ended in Spain, King Juan Carlos did just what I had the Queen do in the book.

So if Farthing is helping you understand Brexit, or Trump, or Fascism, good, and I’m so sorry you need to. And it’s in print, and the sequels are, in the US and the UK and France and Germany*, if you wanted to give it to people who it might help. It could make a great Christmas present for your challenging relatives, especially as it looks relatively innocuous. It’s a mystery novel. An alternate history mystery. Not any kind of propaganda. And Ha’Penny won the Prometheus award. In my acceptance speech I said “I’m a cheerful positive kind of person. That’s why I wrote these books.”

(* It has also been published in Japanese, Spanish and Hungarian, but I don’t know the in print status or availability in those languages.)

Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, Small Change, Writing

2nd May 2016: My Goodreads review of Petrarch’s letters

Five hundred and ninety years before I was born, Petrarch died in the middle of writing me a letter.

What do you mean it wasn’t to me? It totally was. It was addressed to “Posterity”, and if I’m not his posterity then I don’t know who is.

Petrarch was warm and friendly and playful and he cared about people and he loved books and the ancient world, and he wanted to live in any age but his own, and to make his own age better and different. And he succeeded in fascinating ways that he couldn’t see in making it better and different. He fell in love with Laura and wrote a bunch of very clever poems to her, but his real relationships were his passionate (but neither sexual nor romantic) friendships with other scholars.

In this volume there are adorable letters to Boccaccio, and there are sad letters about being old and ill (and how awful doctors were, and it was 1370, so actually he wasn’t wrong) and lovely letters in response to fan letters from young admirers, and charming letters to patrons, and grumpy letters to the pope (he wasn’t about to go to Avignon again at his age!) and you don’t want to start here. Start with book 1 of his Familiar Letters and read them all slowly, and when you get here you’ll cry too, because he’s been dead since 1374, and it’s not that you didn’t know that before you started reading, it’s just that by then you’ll be his posterity too. I could do with some company here, actually, mourning Petrarch. Appreciating Petrarch. (I’ve written a ton of poetry about him. It’s on my webpage.)

I began to read these letters because Steven Greenblatt mentioned (in The Swerve), in an offhand and slightly patronizing way, as if it was weird and charming but also childish and eccentric, that Petrarch had written letters to Cicero, in response to reading Cicero’s letters. And my immediate response was a deep feeling of kinship with Petrarch because as a teenager I had done the same thing. In Latin. Of course in Latin. And yes, I knew Cicero was dead, and so did Petrarch, but Petrarch and I know something about time and death and art that Greenblatt doesn’t, quite. I did not triage the Petrarch letters and find the Cicero one, I started at the beginning and read all of them over the course of two years, and I am so glad I did.

Thank you Aldo S Bernardo for translating them, thank you Italica Press for putting them out in relatively affordable e-book editions, thank you Steven Greenblatt for getting me interested in the first place, and thank you Petrarch for starting the Renaissance and saving the world.

Posterity remembers, cares, is deeply grateful, and loves you ridiculously much. I don’t know what you’d think of me as a woman with a classics degree and a poet, because that was too much out of your imagination of the world. But neither of us is what Cicero was expecting either. You have to take what posterity you get.

Posted in Books, Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

1st December 2015: 51 Today

AM is here and I’m going out for breakfast and later today for dinner with Z as well, and the book is done, and I have such great family and friends, and being fifty-one is lovely so far.

I won’t be doing my regular birthday list of what I published and the awards I won when I was fifty, because I think there’s a slippery slope with that at one end and the Sad Puppies saying everyone campaigns at the other, and that makes it very important that everyone does not campaign, or do anything that remotely could be claimed to look like it, this year especially. It was a fun thing to do on my birthday, looking at achievements for the year, and I’m sorry to stop, but never mind. Here’s the summary: Two novels out, another completed, a Tiptree award, a Locus award, the ALA stuff, and a bunch of nominations. Completely awesome actually.

Places I visited for the first time when I was fifty:

Salisbury, Wiltshire
Colorado Springs
Spokane, Washington
Lyon
Avignon
Nice
Canton, Ohio

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, My Books

29th January 2015: Everything alive and dead to weep as one

There’s a family anecdote about me that I’m not sure whether I actually remember or whether I just remember being told about it lots and lots of times. I was four or five, and we went to St David’s Cathedral, on the very tip of West Wales. When we were there, we were shown the tomb of Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) — whereupon I burst into inconsolable tears. I’d read his book, and I hadn’t known he was dead.

My family thought this was hilarious. My aunt still does. She told Ada this story in the summer when we were in Llandaff cathedral. Ada didn’t think it was funny, or even strange. This is because I still do this, and she does too.

I almost always cry on reaching the end of a biography — though at this point it’s not like I didn’t know Voltaire was dead. But yet, but yet… Emilie du Chatelet is dead too. It’s not shock that brings tears to my eyes. But it is grief. And it is real, even though they’ve been dead for centuries and they were dead this morning too.

Sometimes it feels as if everyone is dead and I have to remind myself that there are many awesome people still alive right now.

But I keep on reading biographies, or worse, collections of letters. Oh my goodness, Petrarch. Petrarch lived through the Black Death, and he lost friend after friend, and then two of his best friends got killed by bandits just outside Florence, and he’d just been writing to them! And eventually I will reach the end of his letters, and I will cry. I’d cry if I saw his grave, too. I’m not crying for Petrarch right now, even though he’s dead right now, because right now I have multiple volumes of his letters to go, so it is as if he’s still alive and still writing them.

I think that’s true in a way, our acts build the future and that’s our legacy, and writers are still alive in their writing. When we went to Shakespeare’s tomb when we were in Stratford in the summer (Greer really wanted to) it was strange, because in the church they were acting as if he was dead, but I knew he was still alive in the theatre. Sometimes the too too solid flesh is the least of it. Voltaire too.

But yet…

I don’t know whether, when, as a little kid, I wept for Giraldus Cambrensis, I understood the distance between the twelfth century and the twentieth century. I did, I think, understand that Gerald was describing a Wales different from the one I lived in, and that times had changed. I think what I didn’t understand was human mortality, that somebody who had been alive when castles and abbeys were new couldn’t still be alive now. I am aware of that now. But I’m still sad about it, and also deeply irritated. Death is a bug. It’s stupid. Why shouldn’t people live eight hundred or a thousand years?

Also, when people talk abour genealogy and looking up their ancestors, although their ancestors always sound really cool, I am never even slightly moved to look up mine. I have enough relations already. Why would I want more? They’d only laugh at me. I’d rather have Giraldus Cambrensis.

Books obliquely recommended in this post:

Giraldus Cambrensis Journey Through Wales.
David Bodanis Passionate Minds.
Petrarch Familiar Letters (available in 3 volumes, of which I have just started the second).
Voltaire Philosophical Dictionary (Definitely the best place to start with Voltaire. It’s funny and warm.)

Posted in Books, Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

1st December 2014: Best birthday present ever

So Marissa Lingen gave me a book.

And lots of people have given me books before, and sometimes books I really really wanted, like the time my aunt gave me The Silmarillion when I was fourteen, and I had wanted it so much it hurt for the whole month before.

But this is a book I didn’t know I wanted, because I didn’t know it existed. Indeed, it didn’t exist, and maybe it doesn’t now — it’s really not a book, I suppose it’s a very special kind of birthday card.

It’s a theme anthology, specially for me, on the subject of “Things Jo Walton Likes”, with stories specially written by some of my friends. Mrissa had the idea and organized it, and here it is, with stories by her and Ada and Alec and Lila and Jon Singer and Jon Evans and  Tim Cooper, and oh that came out a funny mix of LJ names and real names but there we are, it’s late, and I’m fifty now, I can do that if I want to.

So it’s an anthology of stories about things I like, written by people I like and who like me, and especially for me. And that’s — I mean, wow. Not only is this the best birthday present ever, I think it’s probably the best birthday present possible. I mean Z gave me a mug with an octopus on that disappears as your tea cools, and that’s pretty cool, but it can’t even compete, and Rysmiel gave me my traditional every-zero-year birthday pin up of a naked man (this time Voltaire to go with Samuel Delany) but even that pales by comparison.

I’m just overwhelmed. And I haven’t even read it yet.

Posted in Books, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

1st December 2014: Half a century

I am fifty, except that, like Neil Gaiman, I still feel twelve.

AM is here, Marissa Lingen and family are in town, we have plans with Z tonight and a party next weekend.

Fifty is an odd age, awfully old, but yet still relatively young. And I have done so much and seen so much and been so lucky, and yet done so little and have to much left to do and see and look forward to.

Novels

My Real Children Tor, May. Corsair, August.

Stories

Sleeper Tor.com August

Poetry

Hades and Persephone Tor.com April

On the Impending Death of Iain Banks Moral Relativism Magazine

Non Fiction

What Makes This Book So Great, January, Tor.

Reprints and Translations

“Sleeper” in French, in Utopiales 14 anthology.

“Turnover” at Lightspeed

My Real Children in Italian

Among Others in Japanese, French, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian

Sold But Not Yet Published

An Informal History of the Hugos Essay collection.

Pending from Previous Years

The Just City coming out in January
The Philosopher Kings coming out in July

The Small Change books in French and Polish
Among Others in Korean

In progress

Necessity

Poor Relations

Awards

Kurd Lasswitz Preis

Award Nominations

Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice for MRC

New Places Visited

North America: San Diego, Las Vegas, Santa Fe
Europe: Venice, Bologna, Nantes

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, My Books

30th September 2014: A Kind of Rissole

One of the things I am reading is Boccaccio’s Decameron. It’s a fascinating collection of medieval stories, comparable to the Canterbury Tales but more Italian and with more sex. The frame story is that seven young ladies and three young men go off together to a country house to escape the Plague — the Black Death, which is ravaging Florence. There they elect one of their number Queen (or King) for the day, and amuse themselves by telling stories. The book is divided into days, and there are ten stories told each day. Sometimes there’s a theme, like “tricks wives play on husbands” or “tricks husbands play on wives” or and sometimes there’s no theme. The storytellers are lightly characterised in the frame and through the stories they choose. It’s very funny, and there’s lots of sex, and the book has been scandalous for centuries.

I’m reading a free translation, and I am well on into volume two — I’ve been reading it for ages, one story at a time. (I’ve been doing a thing recently where I’m reading about a dozen things that fall well into sections, and in between reading longer things I’ll read a section each of those things. It’s great when I’m travelling. It’s one of the fun things about the Kindle.)

This is a Victorian translation of Boccaccio, but that has been fine, until I came to a fun story about an idiot being tricked into looking for a magic stone. The people gulling the idiot tell him about a wonderful country where macaroni and ravioli spill out freely for the taking. And there’s a footnote by ravioli, which the Victorian translator assumes the Victorian reader will not recognise — and probably rightly. I remember the first time I had ravioli, and my grandmother’s Cookery Year definitely thinks of it as something exotic, though not quite in italics. What surprised me wasn’t the existence of the footnote but the content. “Ravioli: A kind of rissole”.

A rissole is… I expect that to my readers it’s far less common than ravioli. It’s “a small croquette” according to Wikipedia, usually rolled in breadcrumbs. It’s like a fishcake except that it can be made of meat. It’s much bigger than ravioli — about the size of a meatball or a small burger, and indeed it can be thought of like an old fashioned down market burger, using unidentified meat and spices and maybe onion, sometimes tasty but best not inquired into, frequently seen in school dinners, generally fried. I don’t dislike rissoles, though I don’t make them or seek them out.

But they’re not ravioli or anything like ravioli — except that ravioli too has meat in the middle, and if the outside of ravioli is delicious pasta instead of measly breadcrumbs, well…

So I looked up the translator. He was James Macmullen Rigg, 1855-1926. There’s not much about his life, just a note that he was an English historian, biographer and barrister, the son of a Methodist divine and his sister was a headmistress. James Macmullen Rigg wrote a book about St Anselm, he did masses of work for the Dictionary of National Biography, he translated the Decameron and also Pico’s nephew’s life of Pico, which I am thrilled to discover is available online in multiple useful e-formats, yay. (Research is its own reward, I’m really glad to have that.)

But imagine him, a man in his thirties in the eighteen eighties, son of a prominent Methodist. I see him with a full beard and a perplexed expression. How absolutely desperate he must have been, trying to come up with some kind of equivalent to ravioli or an explanation for it. There he was, he spoke Italian, he’d probably been to Italy and eaten ravioli. In Italy they’d been eating ravioli since Boccaccio’s day, but in the intervening five centuries it hadn’t made it to Britain, and he must have doubted it ever would. There he was, a long way through this major project of translating this really scandalous book, getting across the humour and the innuendo and the descriptions, but honestly, how could anyone convey ravioli to his likely audience? I see him trying over and over, crossing things out, writing long descriptions, and at last, sleepless and hungry, giving up and resorting to “a kind of rissole”.

Posted in Books, Human culture

17th July 2014: Things you didn’t know about Heraclitus

I was re-reading Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies before falling asleep, and indeed, as you will see, after falling asleep. I think I may have mentioned that I read until I am asleep, and then after I am asleep I close the book and remove my glasses and turn off the light.

So I was reading about Heraclitus, and I came to the sentence “He got this idea from the oriental…” and I thought “Oh what an unfortunate word, maybe it was OK in 1943 when he wrote it but how could I not have noticed it on previous reading, oh dear!” and continued reading “…the oriental Cao Li, the woman whose trip from China through India and Persia to Greece and back may have been the original inspiration for Journey to the West“.

The book then went on to discuss: the influence of Buddhism on her and her on Buddhism, and her version of Buddhism on Heraclitus; whether Plato’s ideas on agape and female philosophers were influenced by Heraclitus’s writings about Cao Li (he couldn’t have been influenced by her directly because none of her writing was in Greek); how Zola wrote a novel about her relationship with Heraclitus; how Western philosophers had traditionally tried to diminish her original thought; how recent work showed her thought was truly original and not just Chinese commonplaces; how difficult it is to discuss historicism and cultural change with respect to China; how significant her work was to Chinese philosophy; how much more important her work was to Heraclitus (who admitted it) and indirectly through him via Plato to Western philosophy; and whether or not she and Heraclitus had a romantic as well as an intellectual relationship.

When I woke up I was deeply disappointed to discover that, in the text as printed, the word “oriental” was actually followed by “despotisms”.

Posted in Thessaly, Whimsy

28th May 2014: Vorfreude


That’s word of the week — it’s pronounced vor-FROY-dah and it means the intense anticipatory joy of looking forward to future joys. It’s German, and it seems weird to me that English has borrowed schadenfreude and not vorfreude — so I’ve borrowed it myself and plan to use it a whole lot.

I discovered it yesterday when a German fan emailed me to say that his copy of My Real Children had arrived, and used it as a subject line.

The trip so far has been really great. Yesterday afternoon we went out to lunch with Warren and discovered a really excellent gelateria, Dolce Gelateria near the Christopher Street subway stop. It’s really great — equivalent to Fous Desserts in Montreal and as good as all but the very best gelato places in Florence and Rome. Also, they had something I’ve never had before and Ada had only had once, olive oil gelato. It had all the delicious richness and taste complexity of olive oil, and the creamy sweetness of gelato. Incredible. We plan to go there again on Thursday after BEA, and I commend it to your attention if you are in New York.

Also, in the same neighbourhood I discovered the US’s strategic cheese reserve, and a very cool Czech bistro with excellent spaetzle, and an awesome fun letterpress place with terrific original things. (You know what I love? Everything has a website now, so you don’t have to memorize everything. I just found those to share with you by googling what they were plus “Greenwich Village”.)

I mentioned Dolce Gelateria in the questions after my reading at the Word, a lovely bookstore in Brooklyn. One of the great things about this tour is getting to visit thriving indie bookshops, and it just makes me happy to see them. Last night’s reading went well and was a ton of fun. Ada sang, I read and answered questions, Ada sang again and then I signed. This not only gave the attendees more variation than just listening to me, and excellent thematic music, but it had the unexpected bonus of energising me during the process, so that I was far less exhausted afterwards than I usually am, so that was great. We plan to repeat this fun program at other bookstores, so for those thinking of coming to the Wellesley Books reading tonight, there will definitely be music. After the event we had dinner in a neighbourhood bistro with a few friends, and that was lovely too.

And today we are zooming up to Boston.

And I feel such vorfreude for the rest of this trip!

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face