Africanfuturism: Binti

It’s kind of amazing just how much Nnedi Okorafor packs into this little book: so much bigger on the inside than the outside. The basic bones of the story look familiar to anyone who’s spent even a little time with myths and fairy tales: girl leaves home, girl encounters terrible tragedy, girl encounters strangers, girl saves the world. But the rich details make it so much more than just a coming of age tale, from Binti’s hair care regimen to the jellyfish-like Meduse (Okorafor thanks our own earthly jellyfish for their inspiration).

Binti is a mathematical genius, and the novella opens as she sneaks out of her home, to set off on an interplanetary journey to Oomza Uni, the first of her people – the Himba – to do so. Her family doesn’t approve, and her appearance – dark skin, plaited hair, and steel anklets – sometimes gets objectifyin curiosity. Binti boards the space ship and heads off to uni. Before she can arrive, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, and almost everyone is killed; Binti is saved by the edan, a mysterious piece of technology.

The Meduse are angry with humans because of a sort of Museum theft that makes the British Museum look almost benign. Although initially saved by luck, Binti uses her brain to find a solution that will avoid further killing, and also sees her start her studies at Oomza Uni with the Meduse Olwu. Although she now has very differeny hair…

And there’s two more novellas in the trilogy!

From Murderbirds to Sherlock Holmes

2020 reading seems to fall into 2 categories: binge reading and almost no reading. I’m in the latter, at least as far as reading something new goes (I’ve reread a few novels). But there is hope for those of us who are struggling find time/energy/focus to read fiction: novellas! I have read THREE of these! Two of them were even ebooks, a format I am still not wild about but find okay for a reasonably short work (no way am I reading something like the Lord of the Rings on my tablet). Aliette de Bodard’s short fiction is the perfect length for an ereader.

First up: Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders aka Murderbirds go home for the holidays (the author’s own nickname for her mismatched couple). This one works best if you’ve already read the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, but honestly I think if charismatic stabby fallen angels are your thing you can manage (spoiler: I love the stabby angel). A quick little murder mystery with added political intrigue, featuring Thuan, a dragon prince who’d just like a quiet Lunar New Year, and Asmodeus, the fallen angel whose default solution to problems is stabbing people. Thuan has made the common mistake of taking his husband home for the holidays, with the added fun that ‘home’ is the underwater dragon kingdom, his aunt’s position as Empress isn’t 100% stable, and Asmodeus is Asmodeus. It’s a clever little mystery , but for me this is all about watching the two husbands trying to not get themselves or each other killed – or anyone else if possible, in Thuan’s case – and figure out their boundaries and compromises as a couple, and the balancing act between two very different worlds above and below the Seine.

Oh, and then there’s Grandmother, the dowager Empress…let’s just say Asmodeus is a big fan.

The Tea Master and the Detective is by the same author, but set in a different universe (there are other works in the same universe, but these are all standalone). The only thing in common is the Vietnamese elements, but instead of dragons we’re now out in space, with a lovely Sherlock Holmes homage, except this time Holmes is a prickly scholar with a past (Long Chau) and Watson is a traumatised sentient spaceship (The Shadow’s Child). Between the two of them they have to work out what to do with a corpse — but first they need to figure out whether they trust each other enough to work together. It’s a great mystery, but something that really stands out is how, unlike some versions of Holmes and Watson, de Bodard captures the fact that Watson starts out in a fragile place and Holmes may be prickly with drug issues, but cares about people.

Adventures in Reading Nonfiction

I love reading nonfiction as well as fiction. And if I’m busy or lacking focus or for whatever reason don’t have a lot of time to devote to reading, I almost always plump for nonfiction. I find it easier to put down, whereas I tend to binge novels and then there’s the whole “up til 1am reading even though I need to get out of bed and function the next morning” issue. So, my first lockdown book was a random find from the library, which I picked solely based on the cool iridescent beetle on the cover. (Lockdown has forced me to come to terms with ebooks, which I find harder on the eyes and had avoided as long as I had the choice to read a physical book.)

SO.MANY.COOL.BUG.FACTS. They have eyes in the oddest places (the Japanese yellow swallowtail butterfly in particular). They don’t have lungs, so their blood doesn’t need to carry oxygen, so it’s not red. There is a species of mosquito which lives only in the London Underground, with different varieties for the different lines. Wasps who turn ladybirds INTO ZOMBIES. AND SOME EVEN SURVIVE! Ampulex Dementor: the soul sucker wasp named after the creations from Harry Potter (DO NOT google those last two if you have any kind of insect phobia). Dragonflies are the most successful predator on earth. And that’s before you get into the incredibly complex role that bugs play in keeping the entire ecosystem ticking over. Pollinating bees just scratch the surface.

I read just for the sake of reading, and like learning just for the sake of learning, but fellow writers, nonfiction is a goldmine. Truth is so much weirder than fiction!

Archived, with love

Hello! [insert standard note about infrequency of actually writing anything on this site]

I wrote a novel. It’s nearly 80,000 words, it has an identifiable beginning, middle and end, with a plot. It has characters – some of them really good! It even had NAMES and WORLDBUILDING (and naming people was like pulling teeth). And now? It’s been saved in a folder and left there.

Why? It is the first full length book thing I ever wrote, and you could tell. I wrote, read it, edited it, read it, and thought: it’s just not there. I don’t know if it ever will be, but it won’t be anytime soon. So now I’m writing another. And I already think it’s better, although it’s only about 20% of the total hoped-for words. Naming people is still the bane of my writerly existence (meet Bureaucrat*, one of my main characters, so-called because he’s… a bureaucrat. Managed to name my warlord after about 15,000 words.). But I have a much better idea of how a plot ought to work. I’ve got a better idea of how to make the stakes matter to the characters. I included dragons who are scaly doggos! And even had to decide what sort of language they speak (the people, not the dragons). Dragons AND invented languages: definitely levelling up there. I also started this book at the beginning of a global pandemic, so, you know, it’s slow going.

I guess there’s not much point to this, other than that whole “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” cliche is true. So if you wrote a book and it never made it off the cloud/your hard drive/a floppy disk/handwritten notebook: you’re not alone.

*To be 100% transparent, he’s actually called Burocrat, because Italian is my second language and it’s just so much easier to type with -o- than -eau-.

Who are all these people, and what do I call them?

If you’ve written anything at all, you’ll know the hair-pulling madness that comes of having to name ALL THE THINGS. People, places, made-up foodstuffs. The most common suggestion (based on my completely unscientific random scrolling of twitter) is to use baby name books. Which is probably not a bad start, but what if you’re doing historical fiction, or fantasy where you’ve lost your mind and decided to invent names for all your characters? Or you don’t want to name your characters Emily and Olivia and whatever else is currently trendy in the English speaking world? Do other linguistic communities do baby name books, or is it an Anglo-Capitalist thing?

There are a couple other things you can try:

Google can help out. For historical fiction, or even if you just want something different, you can just type “15th century Venetian women’s names” into your search bar and hey presto! names. Or “medieval German given names”. (Bartilmebis, anyone?) A big thank you to the wonderful people who compile these lists!

Another option for the desperate writer who still has 85645215963 more characters to name? Type random letters on your keyboard til you find a sequence you like. wofueanaidhfiwmfog: how about Anaidh? This one obviously wouldn’t work for dictation softward, and I can’t speak to non-alphabetic languages.

Long names are fine. Short names are fine. Wonky spellings, straightforward phonetic spellings, full-fledged patronymics? Go for it. Even diacritics, although editors and publishers might object. And however dumb you might think your names are, just remember: Scientists named the massive super-hot explosion which brought the entire universe into existence the Big Bang.

It’s not how I pictured it

Every once in a while on twitter, people talk about how they visualise a character, or how a casting choice didn’t meet their expectations, or their dream cast for a book. And I just don’t get it, because I don’t picture characters with that level of visual detail. Not even my own. I can describe them, make choices about their overall shape, but I can’t match them up to a fully fledged three dimensional physical human.  Now, if something’s wildly off about a physical representation (whitewashing), I’ll notice, and I’ll definitely notice if the character doesn’t match how the character on the page behaved, but otherwise, I’m just sort of “eh”. In my head, characters have about as much physical detail as if I’d drawn them, and I’m a terrible artist.

It’s not just people either. I apologise to anyone who’s spent days labouring over their worldbuilding of physical details, but when I’m reading, it’s mostly generic “building” or “forest” or  “lab” or “market”. I almost never picture the physical landscape in specific detail, which of course is probably why I struggle with adding these bits to my own writing. My default is “they went to the house”, not “they went to the ancient mansion, its green paint now faded an unsettling shade of grey”.

Weirdly, the only time I seem to really see a landscape is when that landscape is, in theory, more barren. Like in The Tombs of Atuan: I could picture the desert where the Place was, and the almost lightless underground tombs. Or, now I think of it, in The Farthest Shore, when LeGuin takes her protagonists out on the open sea. Maybe when there’s less to imagine I can manage better? Don’t know.

All of which to say, when I say “I’d never really thought about what they looked like”, I really mean it!

What did they do (and do I care)?

Soapbox time!

Which is more important, plot or character?

Oh, how we love our binaries…and this one is about as useless as a lot of binaries. I like mysteries, I like a good puzzle, and that’s “plot”. I love a good character, and will follow a well loved character through the most bizarre and unlikely of plots. What I’ve noticed, for ME, is this: to come back to a book again and again, to buy up all the books in a series, to imagine alternate endings and what-ifs, I need to love the characters. The most fascinating plot in the world won’t hold my attention if I don’t care about any of the characters, but I will follow beloved characters doing the most mundane things.  And those characters may not be “likeable” or “relatable” or whatever gatekeeping term is in vogue: they have to be interesting, in one way or another. (For me, Iago, who had no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, is the star of Othelllo.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just see if there are any new Good Omens fanfic about braiding hair.

By any other name

Full disclosure: I’m a white anglo person. Which means I have a whole lot of privilege in the place where I live, and a lot of other places too. I don’t always see it, but privilege is like oxygen: I don’t have to see it to benefit, and you don’t really appreciate it til you don’t have it. And lately, I’ve been seeing it on the writers’ corner of twitter, and it’s about something pretty important: names.

I love the #WritingCommunity, and it’s generally a great place to hang out. But this keeps popping up as advice:

Keep your characters relatable! Give them short, easy names, like Jen or Kate or Dan or Taylor. Otherwise readers won’t be able to remember who’s who.

And fellow white anglo people, can we not? The assumption that the best names are short, uber anglo names? And that short, uber anglo names are the most relatable? On a planet of more than seven billion people with thousands of languages? No. And no, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with you giving your characters said names – it’s the assumption that those names are the most *relatable*, that anything else is too hard or too weird or whatever. It’s the Daenerys Targaryen test: if THAT name isn’t too weird or unrelatable for literally millions of people, neither is anything else.