Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Creating an American Mythology

It is a fairly widely known fact among fans of The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien created Middle Earth in part as a way to fulfill his desire for a mythology for England.  He borrowed heavily from other sources (particularly the Nordic myths), but what he created was uniquely his and representative of English ideology.

In the past when I thought about this quest of Tolkien's I wondered if he was truly successful.  Middle Earth, while having many parallels to our world, is clearly not our world.  Isn't a myth supposed to enrich our cultural perception of place?

But now I think I've come to understand that Tolkien did create just such a thing.  A few years ago I traveled to the UK, and one of the things I loved most about the five weeks I spent there was knowing that I was in the place where Tolkien's fantasy was still alive.  Everywhere I looked I saw pieces of Middle Earth, pieces of the Shire, pieces of magic.  For me the UK has become the place where magic lives.  I can see now just how successful and relevant Tolkien's mythology really was.

However, as much as I love Middle Earth, I'm not British.  Tolkien's mythology has been borrowed in America and widely used, but it is not an American mythology.  I've heard of Americans searching for a mythology for our country, an analog to Middle Earth, but something that is unique to us.

This isn't a new idea, but it's one that has recently taken hold in my mind.  While I was in Charlottesville for the VA Book Festival I spent some time talking with my dad about the idea.  Together we came up with a few thoughts about what might influence an American mythology.

First, we both recognized that this is a bit of a challenge.  For one thing, America is so incredibly diverse; how can we come up with a mythology that is relevant to all of us?  Secondly, most of us come from families who have only been present in this land for a few generations, just a handful of centuries at most; if mythology is so much about place, how can we claim any mythology having to do with America?

I think the answer to both questions is to choose pieces from a variety of sources that can all fit into one world.

First, the place and its natural history.  Though many of us don't have genetic history here, this land does have a very long, very rich history.  I think Native American myths would be an excellent source for creating some of the foundation of our mythological world.  It would be a world where nature was even more alive, where animals spoke and embodied archetypes such as the trickster, the sage and the warrior.

Doing this would also provide some opportunity to borrow from some of the other cultures that have been pulled into the American mixing pot.  For example, the Native American myths about animals could be supplemented by some of the African animal myths.  Perhaps we could also include Asian shape-shifters.

Second, the people in the world.  Though we are diverse, we have still managed to create an American point of view.  We value hard work, individualism and cunning.  We value equality and freedom from oppression.  We already have some stories that speak to these traits.  Here are a few examples:

American folk tales.  Paul Bunyan is our quintessential can-do man.  Along with others such as Davy Crockett and Pecos Bill, he would be a prime example of a character type to include in an American mythology.

Similarly, cowboys embody this idea of individualism.  I could see the people in our mythology being very rugged types.  I think for some people cowboy stories already are the American myths.  In fact, even though a lot of that cowboy culture is disappearing, we still love the idea so much that we have pushed it forward into futuristic space stories.  Cowboys are American through-and-through.

But part of what makes cowboys possible is having lots of physical land area that is yet untamed.  Therefore one of the requirements for an American mythology would be lots of land that is undiscovered.  This would be a major deviation from a Tolkien-type mythology.  In Middle Earth all things have boundaries and are well-defined.  In an American mythology that would not be the case.  There would be a few pockets of society and relative safety, surrounded by area that would be generally known but not fully tamed, and then further out would be the unknown.

So in sum we would have a wild world inhabited by archetypical animals and by humans, some larger than life, who have to fight for survival.

Of course there is still much to be determined and much that could be added (I've barely even made a beginning here), but I think these ideas serve well as a basis for creating our mythology.  Anyone have other comments or arguments to the contrary?

Monday, March 29, 2010

New Computer

I don't like change.

If there is ever a decision between making a change to gain a little more efficiency and simply remaining as I am, I usually stick to my routine.  I am the embodiment of the “creature of habit.”

Yet recently I have made a change that I absolutely love: after months of dealing with a finicky computer I finally have a beautiful new machine!  It's incredible—everything about it is sleek.  The case is sleek, the performance is sleek, the Win7 OS is sleek.  I turn it on and I hear only a slight whir before the machine descends into silence.  Half a minute later I'm logged in and ready to go.

This is a huge improvement over my last computer.  For the past four years I've been using computers built out of parts my brilliant husband has pieced together (and it's a testament to him that I went so long before deciding I wanted a pre-assembled machine).  But after four years of periodic upgrades my computer was beginning to drag.  With an average boot-up/log-in time of fifteen minutes (taking into account the frequent crashes), it was ready for retirement.

Now I can't get over the aesthetic draw of this OS.  I'm super pleased with Windows 7.  It feels different while still being intuitive.  There's obvious logic behind the design.  Instead of being frustrated by the changes, I find them easy to adjust to; they feel right.

Plus, I have Spider Solitaire now.  I win.

And yet, despite all these things, I haven't actually used my computer all that much since it came last week (even accounting for the time it took to hook it up and install some basic programs).  Though I am excited about the new machine, there is still something that will always trump my latest gadgets:


In this case I am referring specifically to a series: Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses.  I have simply devoured these books over the past week.  I love the characters!  I so wish I could know them for real.  And the romances are compelling and the action is exciting and all the interactions are so vivid.

With a world like that, shiny new electronics fade to nothing.

Thank you, Sharon, for such a beautiful series.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


About a week ago I had a conversation with Ahyicodae about some of the trends regarding aliens in science fiction.  Now I should probably make it clear that I really only know enough of any particular science to get me in trouble, so I'm hardly an expert.  I can only ask questions, not necessarily answer them.  But that was essentially what we were doing: asking questions.

Specifically we were discussing trends of alien race designs, both biological and cultural.  We both felt that, despite some of the fantastic creativity put into some of the alien races in science fiction (John Scalzi's Obin come to mind), there is still a lot of room for branching out.  No matter how undeniably inhuman some of these races are, there are still features (eyes, legs) and behaviors (aggression, timidity) that we can recognize as human-like.

And sometimes this is a very good thing.  There are few, if any, undiscovered human races still left on earth, yet we still have a fascination with the concept of two cultures meeting for the first time.  It is only natural to carry this concept into space.  But I think there is room for other kinds of stories having to do with alien races.

Which brings me to the point: what restrictions, if any, must we place on alien design?

My first question related to this overarching question is something that I genuinely don't know and would like to understand.  All life (that we know of) on earth is organic (carbon-based).  As far as I know, any attempts to look for alien life rule out places where organic life would be impossible.  But is there really no way that other forms of “life” or intelligence might exist?  If I understand correctly, organic life works because carbon chains form the blocks that life is built out of.  But is it impossible that intelligence could have its home in some other elemental structure?  What do the bio geeks think?

If inorganic intelligence is possible then that opens up so many other questions.  There might even be “alien” intelligence on earth that is simply so foreign to us that we can't possibly recognize it.  But perhaps there is simply too much disparity between organic and inorganic “life” to write anything meaningful about the two together.

Say we are confined to organic life then.  I still think there are infinite untapped ideas.  Most of the alien species I have encountered in science fiction move around using humanoid or insectile legs.  I don't believe I've come across any aliens that don't have vision.  But why should they?  There are other ways to move; there are other ways to gather information about the world.

I always thought it would be interesting to have an alien species that interacts and communicates primarily by sonar.  I'm not just talking about it in the sense that bats use echolocation, but even as a way of conveying ideas.  Imagine one creature conveying the idea of a box shape through sonar to another creature.  That is communication and it is a form of intelligence.  Now imagine that intelligence multiplied a hundred fold, communicating through a complex language of shapes.  How fascinating that would be!  And how different from human communication.  How might that influence the culture of these creatures?  I could imagine they might have a very structured society, but with a lot of isolation even within that structure.

And that is only one idea.  There are so many others to explore.  How much more can we do with science fiction?  I don't know, but I would certainly love to see some new ideas.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Virginia Festival of the Book

Last week was the annual Virginia Festival of the Book (put on by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities).  I had the chance this year to attend some of Saturday's Pub Day panels, as well as the book fair.  As usual after an information-packed conference like this I'm still digesting all of the fantastic advice and insights the panelists had to give, but there were three people in particular who stood out to me and who each had a very specific contribution that I want to share.

The first was Nick Valentino, author of Thomas Riley, a new YA Steampunk novel.  I met him in the morning as I was grazing through the book fair.  Events like this have the potential to be a bit awkward: there are so many genres represented that I simply can't be interested in all of them, leading inevitably to overeager authors attempting to sell me their books while I am meanwhile formulating how best to extricate myself politely without having to buy said books.  Nick Valentino was different.  He was interesting and energetic and a great conversationalist.  We talked about the Steampunk genre (specifically Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, which of course he had also read), about the conferences we each recommended, about the many Steampunk-related gadgets he had brought to decorate his table.  He was engaging and excited about his book, which made me excited about his book.  For that reason it is now prominent on my wish list.

Rebecca Skloot was on the Book Promotion for the 21st Century panel, and after hearing her story it was not hard to understand why.  Despite years of setbacks, she remained diligent and dedicated to her book and finally published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Because of her persistence she was able to turn those years into a foundation that launched her book onto the New York Times bestseller list.  I am simply amazed when I see what she has accomplished.  She truly understands the business side of writing.  She has done the research, made the connections and created the buzz necessary to bring her to this point.

And finally, Simon Lipskar was one of the agents on the Agents Roundtable.  Panels like this one are such a boon to aspiring writers, and I am always grateful to hear what the agents have to tell us.  One of the questions for the panel was what each of them looked for in a query letter.  They were almost unanimous in their responses to the question, but Mr. Lipskar was particularly eloquent on the subject (perhaps something to do with his knack for making the whole room laugh).  He said that what he wants most is to hear the writer's voice in the letter.  So often writers revise their query letters to the point that, though they may hit all the bullet points, the letter is flat and completely misses the mark.  If he can't connect to the writer through the letter then he won't represent the book.  This is a bit of a wake-up call for me since I have been in the process of drafting my first query letters.  I'm so glad to learn these things now and not thirty queries into the process.

So I suppose on the whole the lessons from the VA Book Fest were simple but powerful.  The three things I learned from these three people and must keep in mind going forward:

Get excited.  Work hard.  Be real.