Friday, October 02, 2015

The Psychological Problems of the Comfortably Well Off

I have been reading Jonathan McCalmont's blog. It's called Ruthless Culture, and I keep misremembering the name as Cruel Culture. Anyway, a bright and thoughtful guy. He has almost convinced me that everything I have written in defense of science fiction and popular culture is wrong. However, his most recent post is about a movie titled 45 Years, which he very much liked. It's about a couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. In the course of the movie the wife discovers that her husband has been mourning for -- and obsessed by -- a former girl friend who fell into a glacial crevasse and died. This calls into question her entire married life and her life. I haven't seen the movie and don't intend to, but it sounds like a New Yorker short story from 50 years ago, back when I read The New Yorker. My question is, why should I care about these people and their problems? Why should the emotional problems of the educated upper middle class interest me at all? If I want nuanced exploration of personal lives I can read Henry James, and I have. I realize I sound like a philistine. But Captain America is dealing with the changes in America since WWII and with the realization that his beloved country has been infiltrated by Nazis, who are running the government. I'd call these real and serious problems.

When I was a kid, the real issues -- the ones under the Father Knows Best surface -- were McCarthyism and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Now the real issues are the war against terrorism and its witch hunting and global warming.

Finding out that your marriage is a sham is very sad, but chances are good that 19th century European novelists covered the topic.

I like murder mysteries that deal with personal problems. A dysfunctional family gets a lot zippier if you add a corpse and a question. Who done it? But murder mysteries with political content are even more interesting. Hammett and Chandler wrote about corruption. The more recent women writers have written about feminist issues -- if only by taking over the tough guy mystery.

Patrick has been reading Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt is about the psychological problems of a person who is financially comfortable, but it is also about how incredibly sterile life in Midwestern, middle class America was at the time. That is a point worth making.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


It's always a bit sad when one puts together a long, thoughtful post and there is a comment, and one thinks, "Aha, the conversation is continuing." Then the comment turns out to be robotic praise, leading into some kind of selling...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Stories About Stories 2

One of my failings as a thinker is -- I suddenly get interested in something and chew it to bits. This is more on Brain Attebery's quite harmless paragraph, taken from facebook.

I talked to a pagan friend yesterday. The Icelandic and Finnish myths are still alive and relevant in her community. I think Brian wanted to move on to his main topic, the use of indigenous religions in fantasy, and didn't think through why the use of white mythologies was okay. (Well, I guess the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians are not white. His list is actually a grab bag of cultures. The Icelanders and Finns are white cultures on the the margin of Europe. The Greeks and Romans are foundational. Their art and literature are everywhere in European culture right up to the present. The ancient Egyptians and Sumerians are also foundational, but more remotely, and they exist in an ambiguous racial state. The Egyptians at least are often regarded as honorary whites. I guess any myth that is part of Western history is okay to use. And I can see this is an argument. But it isn't because the myth is dead. It's because we regard these myths as part of our past.)

For example, the Egyptian fad in the early 19th century, after Napoleon invaded Egypt... Sumeria is a longer stretch, but it could be argued that the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia come down to us through the Bible and the histories of Greece and Rome. Here is George Gordon, Lord Byron, on a Biblical event:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

I need to point out again that this is not what Brian's book is about. It's a tossed off comment, before he moved on to the serious discussion.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


I'm writing a story about Icelandic belief, based on a conversation I had with an Icelandic historic site curator more than a decade ago. In some ways, Icelandic belief -- in ghosts and elves and so on -- is like Schrodinger's cat. The belief is in a box in an uncertain state. If you open the box, the uncertain state collapses into either belief or disbelief. Until the box is opened, you have no idea what you will find.

That's the way it is in my story, anyway. I wonder if I can use that metaphor in the story?

I have been remiss...

and have not been posting. So here is a photo of last night's sunset, taken by Sean Michael Murphy...

Stories About Stories

I like Brian Attebery a lot, and I am really enjoying his book Stories about Stories, but this is wrong:

There is an important difference between castoff myth and living tradition. The Scandinavian Eddas, the Kalevala, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the stories recounted by Homer or Ovid are myths of vanished civilizations or peoples converted to other religions. They no longer belong to anyone but are legitimately part of a cultural commons, available to anyone who wishes to tap into archaic mysteries.
He then goes on to discuss 'living religions' and their myths.

The Kalevala was written in the 19th century, drawing on Finnish folklore. It is key to the rise of Finnish nationalism. Ask a Finn if it's dead myth and if it no longer belongs to Finns. Be prepared to duck.

There are no 'Scandinavian Eddas.' The Eddas are Icelandic, and Iceland is not a Scandinavian country, due to being half way across the North Atlantic, rather than on the Scandinavian penninsula. I would argue that the Eddas and the Sagas belong to Icelanders, though plenty of other people have tried to grab them, mostly in the service of Scandinavian or Germanic nationalism. See Wagner. Are the Icelandic myths dead? Yes and no. They are an important part of Icelandic literature and history, part of the Icelanders' sense of their history and who they are. Like the Kalevala, they are national myths, rather than religious myths.

Stories about Stories is an interesting book. Attebery is diving into difficult topics, such as how legit is it to use the myths of indigenous peoples for modern fantasy? In other words, cultural appropriation. He goes very slowly and carefully, thinking the topic through rather than issuing a slogan. But the focus on myths as religious bothers me a bit. Myths can be in the service of cultures and nations. This is who we are. This is our origin. Finland is a small country that struggled to become a nation. Iceland is a far smaller country that has struggled to survive through most of its history. Their literatures are central to who they are. I don't think I would say their myths are 'castoff' and up for grabs.

The Icelandic myths are up for grabs in one sense. They have already been grabbed by far bigger nations: the Scandinavians, England, Germany, the US. There is no way to go back. The result is a very mixed bag. I like Wagner's Ring Cycle. I like the first Thor movie. But there is an amazing lot of Viking crap out there, much of it to be found in Scandinavian gift shops in the Upper Midwest. I am sure I can find plenty of crap in Icelandic shops online, as well. That is one difference between sacred and secular myths. The sacred ones may produce horrible kitsch, but it's sincere. Secular myths can be used cynically, with hipster irony.

Somehow the vendor in Pratchett's Small Gods is relevent here, but I'm not sure how.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Time Is Flying By

My gosh, it's been a month since I've posted here.

Autumn is coming to Minnesota, though it's hot and humid at the moment. But there are feral sunflowers blooming along the freeways (one sign of autumn) and apples and squash at the Farmers Market (another sign). The State Fair ends tomorrow on Labor Day, as it does every year. Patches of foliage are turning color. The days are shortening. Next week the temps are supposed to drop into the 60s.

Not a bad summer. We didn't go anywhere. But our home was pleasant, and I got some writing done.


I am doing a reading at SubText bookstore in downtown St. Paul. The wonderful YA author Kelly Barnhill is also reading. If you have free time this coming Wednesday at 7 pm in the evening, you might consider coming. Of course it will help if you are in the area.

Most likely I will read a grim and funny story based on Icelandic folklore. I just wrote a new one.

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Monday, August 03, 2015


I have been getting slack about posting. What is there to report? It's the middle of summer, sunny and warm, though not dreadfully warm. The highs this week are predicted to be all in the 70s. Not bad for August. The foliage is all lush and deep green. The flowers are going crazy. I finished proofreading the hwarhath collection and took a week or so off, now am getting back to work.

I'm going to be doing a reading at the Subtext bookstore in downtown St. Paul, either this month or in September. I will post the exact date when I have it. If any of you are in the area, you might want to come. I really dislike reading to only one or two people.

I should remind you that I have essays in Strange Horizons, a new one every two months. I've had trouble find my voice, as aspiring writers used to say. But I think I'm finally getting it. It costs nothing to read Strange Horizons and they have good material. Give them a try.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I will be at Diversacon this weekend. It's a small local science fiction convention, which is attended by a lot of my friends. I'm going to be on four panels, at the following times:


Noon: Leigh Brackett

4 pm: Writing Routines


11 am: Folk Tales and Fairy Tales

4 pm: Marvel Movies

Two more


My friend Sean Murphy took some author photos of me. I hate, hate, hate being photographed. But Sean got me talking about -- among other things -- otcopuses and great white sharks and kept shooting and got some good results. Usually, I look grim and tense when I'm photographed.

I think this is my favorite, though it isn't a head shot, which is what's need for an author photo.