Reality Skimming promotes optimistic SF -- stories that inspire us to fight the good fight for another day. Committment to larger projects, the writer's sense of mission, joy of reading, the creative campfire of the SF community and the love of deserving protagonists are celebrated. We believe in heroes and striving to be what we believe in. It is also a news hub for content related to the Okal Rel Saga written by Lynda Williams.
Dialogues: Lynda Williams and a guest author tackle the same topic from two points of view.
Topic: Culture, authenticity, and spec-fic.What’s similar and different about writing one’s own, real culture versus writing an invented one? What are the complications involved in depicting a specific culture in fiction, and does the genre of speculative fiction offer some freedom in that respect?
Q. “Inside baseball” is a metaphor for the details of a subject requiring such a specific knowledge that they cannot be appreciated by an outsider. When depicting a real culture in fiction, how can a writer be authentic without shutting out the general reader with too much “inside baseball?”
Lillian Cohen-Moore: It takes a lot of murdered darlings. As tempting it is to slip in every cultural fact you can think of, there comes a point where readers are going to be able to tell that what you wrote isn’t for people not ‘in the know.’ Michael Chabon is a great example of someone who walks that line with incredible skill. It’s possible for someone who isn’t Jewish to enjoy books like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. There’s a degree of nuance that I think allows for emotional connection for Jews with the book, but it’s an incredible novel for non-Jewish readers as well. At the core of it, Policeman’s Union has an incredibly taut murder mystery at the center. That’s how you build a book that doesn’t shut people out — no matter how many cultural or linguistic details they might not understand off-hand, readers can still follow a strong plot.
Lynda Williams: My mother's rule was never talk about family to outsiders. So writing about topics like the stresses caused by my father's depression were impossible. I started fictionalizing my issues by laundering them through Sci Fi. Throne Price comes closest to portraying the struggle of someone (Amel) struggling to hold the "family" together in a worsening situation. But the sexual abuse elements came from my years at the Crisis Centre and the "slut or frigid" dichotomy of coming of age at the tail end of the sexual revolution. I stripped away details until even I didn't recognize, 100%, what I was talking about through my characters. In the process, I developed my own "inside baseball" in the form of alien cultures and practices which I had to fight to keep palatable to readers. Part 4: Throne Price was written first, and it shows. It needs a re-write to bring it in line with the airier style of subsequent volumes of the saga.
Q. Offending others who identify with the culture: Is it inevitable? Is it a problem?
Lillian Cohen-Moore: You can’t please everyone. I think you run an equal risk of offending those who identify with a culture as you do those outside it. I think that’s a reality of writing, and that the problem of offending others is how it’s responded to. Whether or not you feel that you’ve erred in your portrayal, reacting in a knee-jerk, defensive fashion doesn’t help your work or your readers. It takes a lot to sit down and listen to reader concerns. If you agree with their points, then by all means do what you feel you should in order to address the issue in the present and future. Even if you don’t agree, considering the possibility that you’ve written something from a biased perspective, conscious or otherwise, encourages you to look at your work from a different angle. That’s never a bad thing.
Lynda Williams: When I started writing the Okal Rel Saga it was the adults of my middle-class life I feared offending via my sympathetic portrayal of the Vrellish, with their multiple kinds of sex partners and promiscuous behavior. I never expected to find myself, in the new millennium, worrying about whether the disdain for Vrellish excesses felt by Demish characters might offend friends who act a little Vrellishly. Likewise, Di Mon and Ranar's affair was so avant-garde when I began developing it in the late 70s, that I was warned I'd never sell a genre book featuring a homosexual romance unless I pumped up the erotica and went for a niche market. Now I find gay-advocates annoyed with me for Di Mon's failure to come to terms, entirely, with his sexual orientation. All I can hope is that the characters are well enough drawn, all around, that they work whether or not people are sometimes offended by them.
Q. What are the pros and cons of working with a real vs. an invented culture?
Lillian Cohen-Moore: Working with real culture presents a lot of challenges that I enjoy wrestling with, but the pros and cons tend to drift across the categories for me. Should I follow historic details, what details need to be more malleable in a speculative setting, how much do I want to break from history and how do I defend those choices. I think that the closer you get to the present day, the more potential you have to offend readers when you make the decision to seriously play with alternate history or speculative explanations for historic events and societal mores. The closer something is to us, to have affected our lives or loved ones, the touchier those topics can be to address in fiction, as a writer or a reader. That’s the fundamental issue to keep in mind in terms of cons, for me. Just because its fiction doesn’t mean it lacks a capacity to hurt.
Lynda Williams: Fiction lets me abstract arguments about what's right and wrong in a way that divorces them from the cultural baggage any reader brings to a story. Nesaks, for example, represent the maddening truth, for me, that good people with wholesome family lives can be racist/sexist/war mongering monsters outside the family circle. I don't have to say whether Nesaks represent the bigoted people of my own life experience, Islamic extremists or far-right Americans. Invented cultures let you tackle issues as pure thought experiment. In Part 2: Righteous Anger, for example, a happy marriage causes death and mayhem. Not because I am against marriage, but because I wanted to experience the issue from the point of view of Vrellish people whose way of life is threatened by it. Some of these ideas came from reading about culture clashes between Europeans and natives across the British empire and other examples of culture clash where the a majority norm encroaches on the perfectly workable, but very different, norms of others. However, I don't believe in pure cultural relativity so I'm always searching these situations for grains of something universal.
Continuing Characters: A series of interviews featuring continuing characters and the authors who know them best.
The Artifacts of Empire series by Gwen Perkins begins with the novel The Universal Mirror (2012), newly available from Hydra Publications in paperback and Kindle format. Planned subsequent volumes will be the novels The Jealousy Glass and The Funeral Ring, and a novella entitled Paper Armor. The books share a common universe, but are designed to be readable both as a series and as stand-alones.
(cover art by Enggar Adirasa)
Asahel Soames rose from obscurity to become a magician. Part of a merchant family, Asahel struggled through adversity as he went through training with others who believed him incapable of performing magic because of his low class. He formed a bond with Quentin Mathar Gredara, a nobleman, during these years and that friendship forms the basis of conflict in both The Universal Mirror and its sequel-in-progress, The Jealousy Glass.
"People are the same whether they believe in a higher being or not. I shouldn’t see that having a god absolves anyone of responsibility. Rather, it ought to give them more of it." --Asahel
(character portrait by Wilson Fabian Saravia)
Questions for Asahel
Q. How did you feel when you realized the full extent of the consequences of defying the laws of your land, which prohibit magicians from leaving their homeland, and casting spells on the living?
I hadn't realized before the depth of what it was that we were doing or what it meant to other people. When I first agreed to help my friend Quentin learn to heal others, I thought only of the good that it would mean. I didn't understand the path that we'd need to take to get there nor where he'd want to go.
Quent hasn't got an understanding of what life is like for those who don't have money. He thinks that it's acceptable to treat the poor as if they're not the same as he is. Easy for him to say when he's never missed a meal in his life nor really spoken to many who did. Life doesn't have the same consequences for him that it does for me. The experimentation that we were doing—it meant exile for him if he was to be caught but for me? It meant death. It wasn't until he made the suggestion that we perform our experiments on the poor that I truly understood how much was at stake.
Q. In The Universal Mirror you play a supporting role to Quentin in his personal quest, but in The Jealousy Glass you play a more central role than Quentin. How do you feel you have changed between books in this series?
A long time has passed. I'm not sure that I feel I'm as much of a man as I used to be. I stood up to Quentin and made difficult choices before. In the aftermath, however, I let myself weaken when I should have been strong. I'm worried that I gave up one friendship to maintain another that perhaps wasn't as valuable as I once believed it to be.
I'm still discovering who it is that I am. A person never really stops learning that, I know, but it's easier to find when you step away from shadows cast taller than your own.
I've used a few different techniques to make this second novel work as a "stand-alone" while playing with the concepts introduced in The Universal Mirror. The Jealousy Glass takes place a year after Mirror concluded which gives the events a little space and also sets the stage for a different conflict to take place. Because so much time has passed, this puts the reader who has followed the series on a more equal footing with those who have not. Those who've read Mirror are likely to notice subtle nuances in Jealousy Glass from moments in the first book but it won't be necessary to read both books to enjoy either first or second.
The second book also takes place in the Anjduri Empire, a larger nation that has a conflicted history with Cercia, the island that The Universal Mirror is set on. Although Asahel and Felix (book 2's POV characters) are familiar with Anjdur, neither has ever been off their island before and because of this, they're discovering the country at the same time as the reader.
Presently, I have three novels and a novella planned in the Artifacts of Empire series. The Universal Mirror is the starting point for the novels and the two subsequent novels, The Jealousy Glass and The Funeral Ring, take place in sequential order right after that one. Paper Armor is the novella that I'm planning and that will actually be an origin story for Felix and Tycho, two characters who play pivotal roles at varying points in the series.
So far as points of view, what I tend to do is have two points of view per novel. (I don't believe this will be the case with the novella.) Asahel is a planned POV character for all three novels while the second POV rotates for each. In The Universal Mirror, it was Quentin, his best friend, whereas in The Jealousy Glass, it's Felix, a swordsman, and in The Funeral Ring, it will be Catharine, Quentin's wife. You see many of the same characters from book to book but the POV won't be the same.
"I believe that if something can be conceived in the imagination it is already one step closer to being achieved."
Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.
Vivian Davidson is a recent UBC graduate with a Major in Political Science and a Minor in International Relations. She is a keen activist and involved in many social organizations like the World Federalists of Canada and the United Nations of Canada. She volunteers at a Japanese language exchange club and with the Wildlife Rescue Association of BC, and works with a landscaper, with the Development Disabilities Association, and as a tutor in Spanish. In her spare time, when she has any, she loves to draw, read, practice the guitar and engage in outdoor activities of all sorts. She rows at Coal Harbour, loves to run and walk, and is a member of a local soccer club.
Science Fiction as a Model
When Lynda spoke at one of my World Federalist meetings, little did I know what an impact her ideas would have on me despite me not being a Trekkie or a sci-fi scholar such as herself. In fact I was so enthralled by her philosophy and motivations that I approached at the end and offered to contribute to her blog, for which she was very pleased. Hence, here I am, an eager writer, putting some of my own ponderings into words to share with a larger interested audience. Again, I am not an avid sci-fi reader, yet I believe I have watched enough sci-fi shows on TV and have read more than a couple sci-fi related books to draw on these to make several observations. My wish is not to convince you of the validity of my opinions but rather, much as Lynda herself intends, to spark much needed dialogue about issues that transcend sci-fi and touch upon universal topics such as morals and ethics which are in danger of becoming obsolete in today’s world of ‘distraction’ and ‘avoidance.’
I once read an interesting article by Ross Pavlac entitled: "Some Thoughts on Ethics and Science Fiction." As he points out, “science fiction (SF) is the natural home of discussion of ethics” and one of the main themes of the SF genre is what he calls “ultimate issues” which include the ideal society, the fate of humanity and the universe itself. As Pavlac states, “SF provides a chance to do things ‘in the laboratory’ with (theoretically) no harm to the real world.” In as such I believe that SF settings allow audiences to postulate what-if scenarios with enough credibility so as to test different theories on how ‘ideal’ societies or different technologies could work or not. Pavlac cites the work of Pohl & Kornbluth's Merchants of Space, which dealt with the issue of harvesting organs from prisoners, something that has been revealed is practiced in China.
SF also offers a realm where the outcomes of certain actions and choices can be deliberated free of any palpable consequences. One very popular example of this, also cited by Pavlac, is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. He mentions how in this case people are “not afraid to make decisions and then have to pay the price of those decisions.” Pavlac explains how Gandalf the wizard is faced with the temptation of the ring knowing that in having it he is given absolute powers yet turns it down because he is aware of how it corrupts him. Similarly, Elrond destroys the ring despite knowing that in doing so his power will end as well. The bad guys, on the other hand, have to face the consequence of their past choices to do wrong, something that the good guys are courageous and intelligent enough not to do.
Roddenbury’s Star Trek is unarguably one of the best known sci-fi creations of all time. Hence, it is fraught with examples of how its creators and writers pictured how an ideal humanity would run. The virtues one can find associated with all characters in this saga are uncountable. And yet some of them immediately come to mind by way of examining how modern-day people can indeed seek the SF genre in search of examples on how to live lives based on self-fulfillment, maturity and growth in an environment of peace and hope and prosperity. My thoughts are well explained by Steve Pavlina’s article "Lessons from Star Trek" from which I take inspiration.
To get right to it, for one thing, the characters such as those of the Enterprise behave virtuously as if acting on a solid inner moral compass. In all moments they show to be acting on the bases of bravery, honesty and self-sacrifice in which neither religion nor belief in a higher power need play a role. Instead, their values are centred on humanism and the universality of each Being as unique and equally valuable no matter what background he or she comes from.
Another value quite prevalent in the SF genre and in particularly in Star Trek is that of self-discipline and emotional maturity. Each character “owns themselves.” In a setting where food and entertainment abound, no one ever overindulges. To the contrary, the characters are so moral and disciplined that they feel comfortable around telepathic/empathic beings that can read their minds. Their public and private personas are congruent and they have nothing to feel shame or guilt about and hence have no need to hide any thought or feeling. In essence, the characters are mature and responsible, two more dominant values of the show. Each Being does his or her job without complaint and assumes 100% of the responsibility for all they do without ever blaming anyone else for their situations. They show passion and commitment to their jobs and are pleased knowing that they can contribute to the well-being of the society as a whole.
The issue of mutual respect is one that cannot be ignored by anyone who has ever watched an episode of this famed show. The characters are always professional when on duty yet when having fun approach a more informal, first-name basis. Nonetheless, at all times they treat each other with mutual respect and never insult, demean or slander each other. As Pavlina states, “When doing their jobs, the characters interact within a formal structure, but off duty they’re on a first-name basis. At all times they treat each other with mutual respect and if one character begins to self-destruct, the others step in to help restore balance and integrity.”
Centred on growth and driven by principles, the characters adhere to their moral compasses at all costs. In the rare instances where conflict does arise, they are willing to violate laws to uphold their principles even if it means giving their lives. In addition, the characters are highly growth-oriented. They continually endeavour to hone their skills and learn about themselves, the cultures of others and about the nature and workings of their environments. Most if not all of them have individual interests that they pursue, whether they be music, art, literature and so forth and even mentor one another as they realize how the betterment of their fellow characters is enriching to themselves as well as to the community at large.
In the end, what the ‘good’ Star Trek does is to, in the words of Lynda Williams, “give people the hope and courage to be good.” The values and principles that the show and the SF genre as a whole guide their characters on act as a model from which society can draw to ponder how life would be if the fictitious visions were made a reality. I believe that if something can be conceived in the imagination it is already one step closer to being achieved. It is only a matter of willingness on the part of those who are corrupted in power to cede it, of those veiled in apathy to act and of those despondent to have hope. It is our collective responsibility to take the visions of the ‘good’ and make it a reality so that we no longer live in world based on the defeating powers of greed, violence and hatred that have slowly lead to the destruction of our own morals, principles and values that we once perceived to be unalienable and ever so important.
Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.
Lynda Williams (Reality Skimming co-editor & author of the Okal Rel Saga) and Michelle Milburn (Reality Skimming co-editor) have been chosen as finalists for the 2012 Prince George Regional Arts and Cultural Awards. Lynda is a finalist in the fiction category for her Okal Rel works. Also among the fiction category finalists is friend of the Okal Rel Universe, Nathalie Mallet. Michelle Milburn is a finalist in the advertising category for her book cover illustrations for both Lynda and Nathalie, and Prince George publishing house Bundoran Press.
Author Karina Fabian returns for our first Continuing Character interview with a dragon.
Continuing Characters: A series of interviews featuring continuing characters and the authors who know them best.
For a dragon detective with a magic-slinging nun as a partner, saving the worlds gets routine. So, when the US government hires Vern and Sister Grace to recover stolen secrets for creating a new Interdimensional Gap--secrets the US would like to keep to itself, thank you—Vern sees a chance to play Dragon-Oh-Seven.
It's super-spy spoofing at its best with exotic locations (Idaho--exotic?), maniacal middle-managers, secret agent men, teen rock stars in trouble, man-eating animatronics, evil overlords and more!
Vern is a private investigator with the Dragon Eye Private Investigations Agency, where he works with his partner Sister Grace. The part where it gets interesting? He's a dragon, and she's a nun/mage from the Faerie Catholic Church. What kind of work to do they do? In Vern's own words: "We'll handle just about any case that pays and, being a dragon, I'm not particular about how I get paid. Cash or carrion, I'm your dragon. We do everything from find lost pets to save the universe--sometimes at the same time. Hey, I'm a dragon. I can multi-task."
Questions for Vern
Q. What made you want to become a private investigator, and is this your first profession?
I almost laughed at this question, because as an immortal being forged in the beginning of time, I’ve done a lot. “Profession,” however, made me stop and think. I’m not sure cruising the skies for cattle, snacking on annoying knights, or trading the spare scale to some apothecary that amuses me counts for a profession. Eight and a half centuries ago, I was “drafted” into service of the Faerie Church, and I’ve done some interesting things, from bodyguard to scribe—I’ve got great penmanship as long as I have an inkwell and a sharp pinkie claw—to agent of the Inquisition. Still, in all those cases, I did what I was told and got my rewards from God and whatever the Church doled out in food and shelter; so, not a profession really.
I didn’t exactly choose the private investigation profession so much as happen into it. I’d come to the Mundane world from Faerie--not sure why, it was a “Calling”-thing—and got caught up in a mystery that baffled the local sheriff. He had every right to be baffled; what Mundane lawman suspects chili pepper vines to turn into murderers—outside of the movie theater, that is? Magic was still new to the Mundane, back then, and obviously, the world needed someone who was an expert—and brilliant, quick to learn new things, strong, with good instincts… I fit the bill, so I hung up a shingle and spent a lot of time cold and hungry because no one wanted to hire a dragon.
That was over a decade ago—a blink of an eye to a dragon. Now, my partner, Sister Grace, and I get a steady share of cases where magic and technology have mixed badly. We still do our share of finding lost kittens. (I never get asked to find lost lambs; it’s always cats.) However, we also handle some major baddies. We’ve saved the Mundane and Faerie worlds so many times, we have a code for it—STUC. (Save The Universes Case). I try to charge extra when I can, but do you know how hard that is to get past a nun? It’s not like I can hold out saving the world until I get a raise.
Still, it’s interesting work, and if you disregard the danger, broken bones, gunshot wounds and other physical annoyances, it’s a pretty good way to spend a few centuries.
Q. How do you get on with humans, and do you ever find it's difficult being a dragon in your profession?
It would be a lot easier if the government would consider me a person. Until Grace joined me, I did everything under the table, with the police force turning a blind eye. Grace holds the PI license that makes us legit, even if we have to pay taxes. It’s humiliating to think that Coyote the Trickster has a Green Card but I don’t qualify. (I just take comfort that he’s still on parole in the reservation, and I put him there. Grin.)
I get along fine with humans from Faerie. They understand about dragons and give us proper respect. (Or most do, and I just eat the rest.) In the Mundane, things are different. Took years to convince the populace of Los Lagos that I did not need a leash and asking me if I was “housebroken” was insulting. Oh, and let’s not discuss the time in Florida when I got mistaken for an animatronic kiddie ride. People as a group are ignorant, but individual persons are all right. I have a lot of good friends in the Mundane.
Questions for Karina
Vern came about because I needed a different angle on dragons and got inspired by a comedy routine in the show Whose Line Is It, Anyway? Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles were doing a noir skit about a parrot, I think, and I was laughing and thinking, “I could do this—with a dragon!” Vern was born. I followed the noir motif of giving him a jaded past, and what could make a dragon more jaded than having to work for St. George (and by expansion, the Faerie Church and God) to get his dragon glory back?
Vern was rough, very cynical, and not good with people, so he needed a soothing influence. Enter Sister Grace from the Order of Our Lady of the Miracles. She’s a high powered mage in the Faerie Catholic Church and has a tortured past of her own; and in fact, was in the US for psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which they don’t have a lot of experience with in Faerie. She needed someone who could protect her, comfort her, and push her to use her magic again. Vern fit the bill nicely. They have great respect and admiration for each other. You’ll notice, for example, in the books that Vern always puts himself first, even when saying, “I and” another person. Other than the saints, Sister Grace is the only person he makes an exception for.
I can let loose, be snarky, make sarcastic jokes and puns. (I looked at the henchman under my claws and drooled. “Phil A. Minion. Can I have fries with that?” I live for these moments. I really do.) It’s a lot of fun to look at the world from the point of view of a predator who believes himself superior to everyone—even the ancient gods and goddesses.
Vern’s easy to write. I scared a friend once by saying I “channel” him, but in truth, his voice and attitude do take over. It’s hard to write Vern when others are around, because I feel my face twist into a kind of half grin, half sneer, and my eyes narrow. (When I’m not chortling at something he said.) I probably look odd at best, schitzo at worse, but that’s okay because the books are such fun, and his voice makes it that way.
For the next book, Gapman, I’m alternating between Vern’s POV and that of his apprentice, the superhero Gapman. It’s a great juxtaposition, because Gapman, aka Ronnie Engleson, is so sweet and naïve and bumbling until Grace makes Vern take him under his wing, so to speak. Vern doesn’t want to deal with a superpowered babe-in-the-woods, but if he has to, he’s going to have some fun…at Ronnie’s expense. (“Consider it ‘tough love,’ if it makes you feel better, Ronnie.” “(Groan) That’s what Mom always says.”)
Lynda Williams is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). Part 7 of the Okal Rel Saga, Healer's Sword, arrives in 2012. Lynda's work features moral dilemmas in a character-driven, multi-cultural setting with radically different attitudes to sex and social control surrounding space warfare and bio-science. She also works as Learning Technology Analyst for Simon Fraser University and teaches a introductory web development course at BCIT.
Is the ORU becoming collectable?
Every now and then I spot one of the older editions of Okal Rel titles showing up on Amazon for more than the original cover price. I asked around the first time I saw this happen, and found out it's a wonky phenomenon. If you are still turning out new books, and have old titles that are out of print, now and then the booksellers will hike the price for your old titles to see if they'll sell as artifacts. I checked back a few weeks later and decided that was it. The crazy high prices had flatlined again. (The original blue cover Guide to the Okal Rel Universe published by Windstorm Creative peaked at something around $200 but I don't know if anyone ever bought it at that price.)
Lately, however, I've noticed there are fewer numbers of old editions available. Like the original Windstorm Creative edition of Kath, with cover art by Yukari Yamamoto. There used to be a few more of these on Amazon, for lower prices. Now it says there is one and it's being offered for $49.47.
I'm starting to wonder if I should hang onto the two or three Windstorm Creative editions I still have in pristine covers. Or the battered original Guide to the Okal Rel Universe. Or even my copy of The Courtesan Prince, from Edge, signed by my publisher Brian Hades and containing the edits recommended by myself and a half dozen other people over the years since publication in 2005. Edits which I'm thrilled to declare will be going into the Kindle edition! (Goodbye evil 'Delm spluttered' on pg. 57 where it should have been H'Reth spluttering. Groan.)
I don't know if ORU artifacts are becoming collectable. But it's a delicious idea, because there are so many, with such interesting histories. From buttons by Kathy Plett, to Lisa O.'s wooden plaque made in wood working class. There are probably a few people in Prince George who might have my first ever copy of Mekan'stan, sold at Studio Fair, and embarrassing in terms of the number of typos, the production quality and the cover art. And just this December, there's Angela's present to me: Diff the Dragon, a novella from Amel's envoy period, written by herself, illustrated by Mel, and published by OkalRelsDaughter Press. (See Angela's vlog on Youtube.) There's the original, orange-cover-edition of Throne Price that came out pre-publication in a small print run. Brianna's draft art for the House of Em comic that floundered in the middle of my amiable separation from Windstorm Creative. Who knows. In the meantime, guess I won't throw out my copy of Richard Jansen's edits for Part 8: Gathering Storm ... although I don't know. Brian photocopied Richard's lovely hand-edited print out so perhaps the only collectible would be pages Richard wrote on, personally.
What makes something an artifact in a digital world? Interesting thoughts.