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Danger Zone

Goddammit, Top Gun: I kind of love you.

I saw you again last night, at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere. The venue alone was enough to prompt a surge of nostalgia: I sat there often in the 1980s, heart hammering in anticipation of EVEN BIGGER Lukes and Leias and Hans, Indianas and T.E. Lawrences (and possibly even Marty McFlys?). Last night, there you were, Top Gun, you big, dumb, Bruckheimer movie. And not only that: my friend Katherine, with whom I first saw you in 1986, was sitting beside me. (This wasn’t the first time she and I had strolled along memory lane together.) Yup: Nostalgia central, for us and the hundreds of other middle-aged people who surrounded us, clutching the cans of beer and plastic cups of wine that are miraculously available at movie theatres, here in 2018.

Pop-cultural nostalgia can be creepy and cancerous. It can drive middle-aged people to spew hate because there’s now a black Stormtrooper in the Star Wars universe, and also a bunch of female characters, some of whom have clearly failed to be white. Oh, and because there’s a female Doctor in the TARDIS. “This has killed my childhood.” “Thanks for ruining everything with your political correctness.” (Those are paraphrasings of much more vitriolic statements that I don’t have the heart to seek out now, even in the interests of direct quotation.)

To my great surprise, I discovered last night that I don’t feel terrible about you, Top Gun. Not like I do about the John Hughes movies I also loved, which, when I’ve re-watched them, have made me wonder how the fuck I, and really mostly everyone else, could have been so oblivious in the ’80s. (“I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” “What are you waiting for?” To say nothing of Long Duk Dong. Really, Sixteen Candles?)

Those other heinous ’80s movies—hell, most of today’s big-budget Hollywood movies—set such low bars that I’m likely overstating your just-fine-ness. But it was so unexpected, to discover this where I thought I’d find only retroactive horror.

I repeat: You’re a Big, Dumb, Bruckheimer Movie, from your “Danger Zone” soundtrack to your fighter jet porn to your cheesy (and thus eminently quotable) dialogue to your cirrus-thin yet also bombastic plot. You have one black character and three female characters (two of whom are navy wives; one of whom has only one line). You’re macho and loud, swathed in stars and stripes. You are, pretty simply, bad.

What you aren’t is heinous.

Strangely, for a Big, Dumb, Swathed-in-the-Flag Movie of your ilk, you lack brown-skinned terrorists or soldiers with strange accents. No nation’s name gets invoked again and again, making American blood boil. It takes nearly two hours for anyone to even die, in this movie that’s about boy-men who fly war planes, and we don’t know who, exactly, has died—just that they were flying MiGs (so the U.S.S.R. is the closest we’ll get to an I.D.) above the Indian Ocean. We don’t see them die; we just see their two jets explode. We don’t see their faces; we just see their menacingly tinted helmets. This is cartoon violence, yes—an easy, bloodless way of making it all a game, keeping the audience’s spirits high and existential questions low. But this also means there’s no targeted hatred. And that means you’ll age better than most of your Big, Dumb friends: your Enemy could be anyone, because they’re no one. (Also, as is made clear with the subtlety of a megaphone and jackhammer combined, Maverick’s true Enemy is himself.)

Then there’s Kelly McGillis’ Charlie. She could be dismissed as just another sexy librarian type—but you know what? She’s actually, genuinely (in Big, Dumb Movie terms) intelligent. She has an established career of her own—she’s a goddamn astrophysicist. She’s beautiful, but she’s not Barbie, and other than that one lingering shot of her stilettos and seamed stockings during the Big Reveal, the camera is most interested in her face. (IMDB provides this tidbit about Kelly McGillis: “Was fired from the film Bachelor Party (1984) allegedly because the producers thought she wasn’t pretty or sexy enough.”) Sure, Charlie exists, narratively, to shape Maverick’s arc—but so does Val Kilmer’s Iceman.

Maverick pursues this idiosyncratically gorgeous, smart, older woman…without being a rapey asshole. There’s an early scene when he follows her into the women’s bathroom at the bar after she’s gently, smilingly, banteringly told him she has friends to meet and that his pick-up attempts must therefore come to an end. She asks him, after he’s followed her in, if he expects them to drop and do it right there on the tile; he suggests the counter. She laughs and walks out. The whiff o’stalking wasn’t great, Top Gun, but you made her firmly in control and him an impetuous but totally unthreatening idiot, and it could have been worse. Lowbaritis strikes again. (Sadly, at the very end of the movie there’s more than a whiff o’quitting-her-awesome-Washington-job-because-she-wants-to-be-an-instructor-with-him. She doesn’t say it outright, but the whiff is pungent.)

Her beauty and intelligence get to him. His beauty and vulnerability get to her. And hoo boy, but Tom Cruise was beautiful to me, in 1986. Not so much when he was flashing that toothy grin (the largeness of his teeth is unsettling today, probably because they’re no longer that large; he’s definitely had work done), but when the camera catches him in repose, his eyes bright green with tears (there are copious tears, in this Big, Dumb Movie, though they mostly gleam and don’t fall). Cruise has become this thing—this crazy Scientologist bone-breaking stunt-doing machine thing. It’s hard to remember that, in 1986, he was just a boy-man who looked beautiful when he cried.

Yes, Top Gun: Your hot boy-men. They talk tough and fly killing machines but they’re also grieving for their dead pilot dads and loving their wives and kids. And, in not even slightly subtextual ways, each other. “This is giving me a hard-on,” murmurs one trainee to another as they’re watching footage of a plane being shot down. “Don’t tease me,” the other murmurs back. And the locker room scenes. Hardly-there towels draped across boy-men who are, in turn, draped near other boy-men. And sweaty, shirtless (except Goose) boy-men grunting and lunging, making beach volleyball look like a completely new and shocking thing, to the teenagers of 1986.

I’d never seen this kind of male objectification before. I was used to getting eyefuls of the female kind, but this…Well. Then and now, I just want to wrap all those hurting, reckless, six-packed boy-men up in a horny, compassionate embrace. It’s not a very smart or enlightened instinct, but instincts seldom are.

People applauded, as the credits rolled. People took selfies and laughed and hummed that insidiously catchy theme music and got ready to throw their 3D glasses away. (3D Top Gun—now that was new.)

Speaking of credits rolling: This has to be all I have to say in defense of a bad movie. My first blog post in eight months, and it’s about Top Gun. Second-person Top Gun, no less. I’m an idiot, and I’m probably hideously wrong about almost everything I’ve written here—as blind about the object of my nostalgia as anyone else is about theirs. But there it is. Top Gun, you doof: I kind of love you.

Archer understands.

I Remember the Ansibles

Last Tuesday night, while I was at Mt. Sinai hospital, Peter texted me that Ursula K. Le Guin had died.

I was at the hospital with my friend Megan, who was in labour with a boy she’d already named Monty. Her mother was there too, exhausted from a trip down from Sudbury and a sore back and a night of only a few hours’ sleep, thanks to Megan’s, “I think my water broke…” at 2:15 a.m. Megan was still fairly comfortable, when I got Peter’s text. I clutched my phone and felt a wave of something profoundly weird: sort-of nausea; sort-of adrenalin rush. Moments later, there it was on the CP24 newscrawl on the TV at the foot of Megan’s bed: Ursula K. Le Guin, award-winning science fiction author, has died at 88.

In 2002, when my first novel was, at long last, finished and ready to go to press, I wrote to Ursula. Penguin Canada had asked me to get in touch with authors I admired to ask them to blurb the book. I spent days on my letter to her. I pared back the adulation in the opening paragraph in what I thought was a very impressive show of restraint and professionalism. I allowed the mention of ansibles to stay. I thought the result was pretty fabulous.

I can’t be sure now, though, because I can’t find the letter. That was five computers ago, in a different house, in a different marriage; there’s no hard copy in any folder, or not that I’ve found, anyway.

She sent me a reply a month or so later via a handmade postcard that I immediately displayed in the most visible place I could think of: the fridge. Thick card stock, rough-edged. She’d done an ink drawing on one side, of a cat curled up asleep. On the back, more ink: my name, written by her. Other words: Thank you…will try to get to it…looks wonderful…

I can’t be sure now, though, because I can’t find the postcard. Three fridges ago. That different marriage. All the boxes I packed, while leaving that other house; all those boxes unpacked, but I’ve never found it.

And then it was 2005, and Penguin Canada sent me out to Vancouver to promote my second book. I was staying at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, wide-eyed, alone, vertiginously free of toddlers and tasks. (I almost cried when a hotel employee asked me how I’d like my coffee, in the morning, when it was brought to my room.) The hotel was full of people: a conference, I soon realized, whose theme was English literature and education. I wandered about, tippy with the vertigo, and there she was, standing in the middle of the main corridor. She was tinier than I’d imagined (shouldn’t our idols always be at least as tall as we are?). Her face was far more lined than it was in her author photo, but I recognized her immediately anyway. She was standing with an elderly man, holding his arm. I remember that they were both wearing khaki raincoats.

I wobbled over to them. I think I said, “Ms. Le Guin?”. She turned and looked up at me and smiled. And I babbled. I said something like, “I wrote to you two years ago because I had a book coming out and you wrote back—you wrote me a postcard with a cat on it—and after that you wrote a letter that said you wouldn’t have time to read the book, but that’s OK, and I’m here because I’ve written another book, and I love you.”

Something like that.

I’d like to remember that her smile didn’t waver, but I’m pretty sure it did. She said, “Ah!”, brightly. And then, “We’re going for a walk; trying to get it in before the rain.” And I, flushing and nauseous, stammered, “Yes…Vancouver…rain…” And off they went, slowly, toward the door. Her hand still on his arm.

I went back to my room. I tore a piece of paper from my notebook and I wrote to her with one of the hotel pens. I apologized for my babbling. I expressed my admiration in measured, precise terms.

I can’t be sure now, though, because I have no copy of this missive. I folded it up and dropped it with the front desk, with her name on it. I nurtured a hope, for some hours thereafter, that I’d hear from her. The hope made me feel stupid, even in its earliest incarnation. By the next day, I flushed all over again, thinking about it.

I can’t be sure about her books now, either. I have an increasingly terrible memory for books and movies, hers included. And yet I do remember how I felt when I read them. I remember that her words were, with Lloyd Alexander’s, the only ones that ever made me want to cry because they were so beautiful.

And I remember being 21, and thinking I was pregnant, and finding an essay of hers in an anthology called (I think) The Choices We Made, about abortion. She’d chosen to have one. I was thinking I’d have to, too. And these very real words of hers made me want to cry even more than her others had, because I was freaking out, and there she was to steady me.

I discovered the rest of her non-fiction around the same time. I scribbled quotes in my “quote book”, until it was ridiculous: I was essentially transcribing entire essays, because all of them shook me, made me think, “Exactly!”, made me feel vulnerable and indestructible, as a writer and a woman.

After baby Monty was born, in the darkest, deepest part of the night, I walked with him. His mother and grandmother were sleeping, in bed and reclining vinyl chair. I held him and I walked back and forth across the room, because whenever I tried to ease him down into the bassinet, he mewled, and his closed eyes fluttered, and his hard little heels thrust at me from within his flannel swaddling. So I walked, jiggling him and patting his back, swaying and patting his back. I held him, this solid, warm, new mammal, and I thought about Ursula K. Le Guin, and how she’d done this too. How she’d jiggled newborns and also hugged cats and written words. How she’d drawn pictures on postcards to send to people who loved her—to young writers who’d get older and lose the postcards and forget the words, but not the love.

 

Walk On

Emma says, “This is my third-last night here before I go.”

We walk to Staples and buy bankers boxes. She sifts through her own baby pictures and finds some to pack. I don’t cry, when I look at the photos, but I do feel gutted. That plump baby with the fuzzy blonde hair that stuck straight up is gone. I can’t hold her anymore. Except of course she’s not gone; she’s grown into a person who is so very fully here, in herself and the world.

Her dad drives her to Montreal; I take the train. I walk out of the station into a night that feels like fall—up McGill College to Sherbrooke, navigating roving bands of toga-sheet-draped frosh. One of them face-plants on the pavement and his friends laugh and laugh. He leaps up as if he hasn’t just broken his nose and laughs too, wetly.

In the morning I walk the 25 minutes from my bed and breakfast to Emma’s place. I love the walk, which takes me past those Montreal apartment buildings I wished I’d lived in, when I was a student—the old stone ones with metal steps spiraling to second floors, and balconies. Emma’s apartment has a balcony. We sit on it after she’s given me the tour; the sun is hot and the ivy is bright green and full of teeny tiny grapes.

Her father’s here too. We go to IKEA, the three of us, and later we put together what we buy there, and then we sit in her huge living room and talk. After a bit we walk to Emma’s boyfriend’s new place. When I introduce myself to his roommate, I say, “Hi: I’m Caitlin, Emma’s sis—” Everyone laughs weirded-out, nervous laughs, including me. “Sorry—Emma’s mother,” I say—but there it is. Not early-onset dementia, but evidence of my deep, reflexive certainty that it’s still me, moving into an apartment in Montreal; that I can’t be as old as I am, with a daughter as old as she is. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was the one weaving through these wet streets, wondering what my classes would be like, or sticking photos of family, friends and cats onto the wall by my bed.

The five of us (Emma’s dad, me, Emma, her boyfriend and his mother) go for dinner at an Italian place on Laurier. Emma’s dad and I split a bottle of red.

We make references to shared things, he and I. I wasn’t sure we would. We mention the apartments we had when we met, in fourth year. The slog from mine to his—unbearably long, in the winter (which lasted most of the academic year).

I cry a little, as I walk back to my B&B that night.

The next morning we buy her a whack of groceries, a kettle, a food processor. Her kitchen—from food processor to hardwood floors to enormous woodblock counter space—is so much better than any kitchen I’ve ever had. I put stuff in cupboards and tell her she can rearrange it, of course, and then I finally internalize the fact that this is her kitchen, and realize that it was presumptuous of me to put anything anywhere in it, and I feel both wobbly and idiotic.

It’s pouring and windy and cold, but she and I go out in it, after her dad hits the road. I buy her a pair of boots because all she has are sandals and Converse, and apparently it’s already autumn. We buy poster putty and tape and return to her apartment, where we put things up on her bedroom walls. I get splinters from unfinished picture frames, and pepper her pristine white wall with pencil markings, and make her hold the tape measure because I’m not doing it right—it’s all very mathesque, and there are four pictures that have to be hung just so, and I’m certain they’re going to look terrible, if they stay up at all. They do. We reward ourselves with a trip to Starbucks (for the WiFi), and then we meet up with her boyfriend and his mother and have dinner at a another Italian restaurant—the one her dad and his dad used to go to, back when.

The pictures are, miraculously, still up when we return to her place. We go to the kitchen and I tell her again how amazing it is. She starts to cry as we walk the wonderful long hall to her room. She says she knows it’ll all be fine—better than fine, maybe—but it’s suddenly real, not just a thing she’s been waiting for; it’s big change, and it’s now, and she can’t help it: the tears have been waiting all day, since her dad left, and all weekend, in fact, ever since she said goodbye to the bunny and the cats, and she knew this would happen. I hold her for a bit, this young woman who used to be that plump blonde baby who slept against my chest when I was too tired to put her back in her crib.

After a moment she draws away and mops at her nose. I lie (hideously, gloriously replete with pasta) on her bed, beneath the photos she’s taped to the wall, and she sits, and we talk until her boyfriend comes to pick her up. They’re going to get a few groceries, before the store closes at 11. I walk as far as I can with them. My mother calls and I hand the phone to Emma. 28 years ago, when I was stacking boxes in my basement bedroom, preparing for my own move to Montreal, my mother came in and hugged me and said “Going away is the right thing to do, and I’m so proud of you and so happy for you” and started to cry. I’d seen her cry maybe twice in my 19 years, and we hardly ever hugged, so this was all very unexpected and unsettling but also right. I was leaving. I’d be back for holidays and in the summer, but things, I, wouldn’t be the same.

Emma finishes talking and hands me back my phone.

I hug her again, when we get to the street I have to turn down, and we say goodbye. She doesn’t cry this time. I don’t either, though I do tear up briefly when I turn and watch them walk together, gesturing, holding hands. And of course, being replete with emotion, memory, and their dangerous progeny, symbolism, I remember when she finally learned to walk, at 15 months. I was convinced she never would; she’d been cruising around our little house for awhile, clinging to bits of furniture and our hands, but showed no signs of wanting to be fully bipedal. She chose Home Depot, in the end, over our little house. I remember that she was wearing her brown corduroy OshKosh overalls. By then her blonde hair had grown into a wispy, sort-of mullet that curled over her turtleneck. We set her down at the head of one of the wide, gleaming aisles and off she went, bandy-legged and reeling.

Off she goes, long-legged and graceful, and I watch her for just a moment before I walk away.

She thinks it looks like she has a weird bald spot, in this photo, but I disagree.

Tyre, tyre, burning bright

I have no idea what I was thinking. What the hell was I thinking?

I was 50,000 words in, then. I’ve since written about 26,000 more. Not bad, right? Not bad for someone who usually requires years, not months, to get into the tens of thousands of words.

Except that my sense of the rightness of the story declines even as its word count goes up. It started out strong and fairly conventional (part I) and continued strong, if not quite as conventional (part II). Part III, though, is quagmire, tire fire, explosion of Silly String.

I’ve felt like this before, right? I think so, but I don’t feel so.

It’s too ambitious. That might be it. Part III is a succession of five Marys, all the same; Marys who die while giving birth to their next self. Parthenogenesis and cloning, in cave and deserted manor house and asylum. Five POVs but also only one. A single body with five internal voices that manifest as singing colours.

What the HELL was I thinking.

It’s too scattered. That might be it, too. My first three books took years to finish because I wrote them in order, chapter bit by chapter bit, in longhand. I never leapt to an out-of-sequence scene, no matter how vivid that scene might have been in my head. That changed with books four and five. The Laptop Revolution. The Dawn of the Haphazard. I got the books done, but the process felt weird. Unsettled.

Maybe this book represents the Mid-morning of the Haphazard? Or perhaps High Noon, after which some other order will prevail?

I was frequently the student who insisted that this time was going to be the time I actually did get a terrible mark on an exam. The student whose “this time” ended up being a crying of wolf, every time, because I mostly kept doing well. I’ve fretted about each of my now-published books, too, and they’ve turned out to be varying degrees of fine, but now…now I might actually lose a book at 76,000 words. (I’ve lost books at 40,000; working my way up?) “Losing it” may, in fact, mean finishing, many months from now, and sending it to interested agents, and hearing what I heard from my former agent: “I can’t sell this.” He said that about The Pattern Scars, and it ended up published—but this time. This time I just don’t know.

And yet I keep writing, hoping to god there’s no wolf.

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Hopes Springs Infernal

I am really, really falling down on the blogging front. This disappoints me—though I have the very best reason for falling down: I’m writing with the kind of joy and focus I haven’t felt since three books ago, with The Pattern Scars.

I did a reading last week, as part of the Words at the Wise reading series at the small but mighty Wise Bar on Bloor West. I’ve done many readings over the years, the most recent of which have all been via ChiZine Publications, at my launches. I was nervous about this latest one, because it was out of my comfort zone: an organizer and other writers I didn’t know; an audience I mostly wouldn’t know either—plus (and possibly most nerve-wrackingly) an excerpt that wasn’t from a finished book.

The other two authors were Claire Horsnell and Andrew Simpson (who was also the organizer). They read before I did, and their pieces were funny and smart—totally engaging. The small-but-mighty space was full of people who were attentive and appreciative. Of course, I still got my customary right-before jitters. But once I was at the mic and talking, it was all OK. More than OK. I spoke new words—words which, despite the joy and focus with which I’ve been setting them down on the page, I was afraid might not work aloud. They did.

I fear and resent hope. Hope is an almost embarrassing thing to have felt, when it’s crushed, and I’d kind of prefer not to let it push up into my brain at all. But it does, time after here-we-go-again time, and it is now. From Gibraltar in 1781 to Quebec in 1878—from a girl named Ana de la Rosa to a man named Louis Riel—I feel like I have something, here, that might be something. I said at the event last week that reading from a work-in-progress is frequently considered seriously jinxing by writers who are otherwise perfectly sensible, non-superstitious people. Setting down the fact of my newest hope may be similarly foolhardy. But there it is. I’m 50,000 words into a story that excites me beyond even the excitement I felt writing about Bronze Age Crete. (Yes. Truly.)

“A madman came by steamer today from Montreal.” That’s how it starts. I can’t wait to find out how it ends.

Damn you, hope.

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(E) Bundle of Joy

Last year, The Pattern Scars was selected for inclusion in an Aurora Awards “e-bundle”, along with some other pretty fine novels. The bundle is now available–and for a mere three weeks. Check it out! Buy it! Read, read, read!

Author Doug Smith provides some background:

“How would you like to own, at an incredible bargain, ten books that readers like yourself have already voted to be the best examples of speculative fiction published in Canada? Well, here’s your chance. I’m curating an ebook bundle for StoryBundle.com that contains winners and finalists for Canada’s premier speculative fiction award, the Aurora Award.

The Auroras are awarded annually by the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association (CSFFA) for excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The award started in 1980 as the Casper and was renamed the Aurora for the 1990 awards. Auroras now include eight professional categories and four fan categories.

One of my goals when putting this bundle together, aside from offering the best books possible, was to have a gender balance in the selected authors. Mission accomplished. The bundle includes five female and five male authors. You’ll also get a great mix of SF and fantasy, adult and YA novels, as well as a selection of short fiction. The bundle also reflects the long history of the Auroras, with titles spanning over twenty years of Canadian speculative fiction. Here’s what you’ll get in the bundle…

Starplex from Robert J. Sawyer, takes you on board a giant exploration starship crewed by humans, dolphins, and extraterrestrials as it embarks on a journey covering billions of years of time and millions of light-years of space. It was also a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Dave Duncan’s West of January is a rare standalone SF novel from a master writer of fantasy series. In it, astounding world building drives a thought-provoking tale of a strange, slowly rotating planet where the habitable zone shifts over a human lifespan.

Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird is the third book set in her Warchild universe about a galaxy spanning human-alien war. It’s a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two. (But you should—Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award and was an Aurora finalist.)

Susan McGregor contributes The Tattooed Witch, the first book in her fantasy trilogy set during the Spanish Inquisition and wonderfully infused with Romany culture of the time. In it, a young woman must turn to her dead mother’s magical legacy to battle the Grand Inquisitor himself.

Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars immerses you in the world of a young female seer able to see the future but not change it. A dark, literary fantasy with believable characters and beautiful prose, the book also won the CBC Bookies Award in 2012.

Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is a much-praised novel that can be viewed as both fantasy and SF. It is challenging, memorable, with the beautiful prose one would expect from cross-genre writer who is also a poet. It also won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Crawford Award.

Sean Stewart provides an excellent young adult fantasy story with Nobody’s Son, in which the hero defeats the beast and wins the hand of the princess in the first chapter—and then learns what fairy tales never tell you.

The bundle also demonstrates the rich tradition of Canadian short speculative fiction, with an anthology and two collections. The anthology Blood & Water, edited by three-time Aurora winner Hayden Trenholm, gives us timely tales of battles over our most precious resource, fueled by climate change, population growth, and humanity’s natural aggression.

Gifts for the One who Comes After, by Helen Marshall, is a brilliant introduction to the work of one of the brightest new lights in short fiction. Gifts also won the World Fantasy Award and was short-listed for both the British Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

My own collection, Chimerascope¸ contains a mix of SF, fantasy, and horror, including an Aurora winner, seven Aurora finalists, and a Best New Horror selection. The collection was also a finalist for the Sunburst Award and the CBC Bookies award.

And if you are looking for still more pedigree, the bundle includes two CSFFA Hall of Fame inductees (Sawyer and Duncan), as well as a current nominee (Dorsey).

At StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of five books in any eBook format worldwide:

  • Blood and Water, edited by Hayden Trenholm
  • Cagebird, by Karin Lowachee
  • Gifts for the One Who Comes After, by Helen Marshall
  • Nobody’s Son, by Sean Stewart
  • The Pattern Scars, by Caitlin Sweet

If you pay $14 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get these five bonus books as well:

  • Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
  • Chimerascope, by Douglas Smith
  • Starplex, by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Tattooed Witch, by Susan McGregor
  • West of January, by Dave Duncan

The Aurora Award bundle runs for three weeks only, from March 30 to April 21. It’s a fantastic deal and a great way to pick up titles already voted by readers like yourself as the best of Canadian SF and fantasy. Click here to check out this great ebook bundle.”

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The Fraidy Fantasist

When I was 14, baking in summer sunshine on a friend’s upper-floor balcony, I decided to begin writing a history of the relationship between Alexander the Great and his best friend/lover, Hephaestion. This wouldn’t be a fictionalized trifle: it would be academic, serious—and yet it would be shot through with creative re-imaginings and deft scene-setting. I could feel the scope of it, widening and widening behind my eyes. My heart was hammering. I drew a blank piece of three-ring paper out of my knapsack. With confidence and a flourish of underline, I wrote a title I can no longer recall. I believe I made it one line in (the line went something like, “Alexander the Great met Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, when they were boys, under the tutelage of Aristotle, at Mieza”). And that was it. I chewed the pen cap. I stared at the paper. I sensed a pall that had no chance against the summer sunshine.

The scope was wide, all right: it widened and widened behind my eyes and farther yet, to a place way beyond the confines of my skull. This was a big undertaking. It was scarily huge. It would require libraries and dry, dull texts that wouldn’t read at all like Mary Renault. I admitted this to myself, on the balcony, and wanted to cry.

Months later, I wrote the first of my many Alexander stories. Forget biography: fiction was how I’d always wanted to do this. And anyway, it was easier. Quicker. More fun.

Decades later, I toyed with the idea of writing something about Louis Riel, set at the insane asylum in Quebec where he was patient, for a time. “Toyed with” is, in fact, too glib a term: I read and scribbled and read some more. I researched. I bookmarked. Spent months plotting things out, after spending hours on the phone with my agent. Louis Riel. The story was breathtakingly exciting. The story was nauseatingly scary. He was a real man: he left letters, diaries, legacy; he left people who knew, admired, hated, loved him, and people who felt powerful things for him still. Who was I to attempt to capture any of this? How could I sacrifice the truth of what that sanitarium had really been for a magic-realist vision of how it never was?

I didn’t end up writing a word of this one. Even my attempt at that biography of Alexander and Hephaestion was more productive.

My forays into a fantastical Bronze Age, thankfully, were a delight. I did just enough research to capture some of the broad strokes, but the rest was imagined—and that was okay, because the story came from myth. Ah, myth: the ultimate in plausible deniability. Don’t like what I chose to do with this plot element? It happens to be consistent with a very old version of the myth. And anyway: it’s myth, people. It never happened—or we can never prove it did, anyway. I’m just the latest in a long line of interpreters, layering on my own images and personalities and twists. Sure, I might have kind of wanted to make a stab at actual Bronze Age historical fiction—but that would have taken a ton of research, and despite all of the research, I could have been wrong or lame about something, and people might have called me out on this.

I write fantasy, in part, because of a heady, addictive need to seek out wonder, to ask profound, elemental human questions via other worlds, using imagery both impossible and immediate. These reasons are easy to give—but there are others. Yup. Laziness and fear are also part of why I write fantasy.

Even without the historical fiction angle: laziness and fear. Take The Pattern Scars, which is narrated by a young woman of extremely humble origins who ends up living in the royal court. Readers have commented on how impressed they are that I chose to use the first-person point of view of a character who’s close to the great goings-on of the highest in the realm, but not quite there: someone who’s privy to some important conversations, but not nearly all of them. One reader might even have referred to this choice of mine as “brave.”

First of all, the “commoner in the court of the king” trope is exactly that: a trope. And it didn’t feel like a brave choice; it felt like a necessary one. I wanted more of that plausible deniability. Political decisions that shape history? Not sure I’m up to writing about that—so Nola wasn’t in the room when those decisions were made. Battlefield strategy? Oh god, no: she hears there might be some, at some point, but that’s about it.

There are narrative reasons other than lazy fear for my point-of-view choices, of course. I’m genuinely fascinated by the idea of thrusting regular people into situations that would normally be beyond them: fish-out-of-water characters, stand-ins for the reader, carefully or fretfully navigating strangeness, rather than striding about knowing everything already.

Lazy fear and narrative appeal are not, it seems, mutually exclusive.

I’m between books now, struggling to come up with what’s next. I’m giddy with barely-formed ideas, snippets gleaned from articles, photos, maps, the tangles and tangents of Wikipedia. I’m scared, because the business-y ground beneath my feet isn’t so much bedrock as it is sinkhole-ridden sand, and I want to make the right choice, for both market and me. So what is next?

What about historical fiction? I’m not 14 anymore, and the Internet exists now: surely I could essay a subject both obscure and possible to substantiate. A fresh new take on fill-in-the-blank; a “wow, I had no idea that was happening in Canada in 1877!” kind of thing.

Literary spins on historical fiction seem to sell, in Canada. They seem to do well, critically. Some of them even involve a whiff or two of fantasy—few enough whiffs, somehow, to keep these novels off the genre shelves. Part of me is eager to try a spin like this. It would stretch my writerly abilities, get me out of my comfort zone. It might garner me some attention outside the genre world—something I’ve never even seriously envisioned, but which might be kind of cool.

But what if someone calls me out on something? “Does she seriously think a working-class Victorian child would speak that way?” “The architecture of the workhouse is all wrong!” “Her grasp of animal husbandry is loose at best.”

I’m kind of trying, though. I’ve started to make notes on some of those exhilarating, mostly formless, historically-based ideas I’ve been having—but the impulse toward lazy fear is already kicking in. Too much work to do this “straight”, and the accuracy stakes are high; why not do the usual Sweetian thing? Historical fantasy, mythology-based fantasy, contemporary fantasy: in the past month or so, I haven’t had a single idea that hasn’t become infested with fantasy elements shortly thereafter.

I should probably start writing and see what happens. If research happens, maybe that’s fine. If fantasy happens, that’s fine too. I should stop trying to crystal-ball the market, and just follow that overthinking, overwrought muse of mine.

Stay tuned.

Full Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers below. They’re not big ones, but I would have been irritated if I’d read something like this before I’d seen the movie. So, to those who care: Consider yourselves warned.

*

I was once Luke Skywalker’s wife. Yup: Luke’s. Not Han’s—when I was seven, Han did nothing for me. I had no idea who David Cassidy was: there were no feathery-haired blond boys in my life at all, until Luke ran across the sand of Tatooine, whining at Uncle Owen. I didn’t care about the whining. I didn’t know what bad acting was. Luke was my one and only 70s fixation—and he stayed with me well into the 80s, long past the time when I should have turned teenage eyes to Han, instead.

And yes: I married Luke. I added a few years to my age and made myself 16 (even in my fantasy I knew that 13 was a little young). I fast-forwarded my Empire Strikes Back soundtrack tape to the part right at the end, when Luke’s getting his mechanical hand and the Falcon is preparing to zip off and find carbon-frozen Han. I’d listen in the dark, squeezing my eyes shut, imagining our very own little cave-house on Tatooine. Imagining how he’d look in moonlit darkness. Imagining…well, whatever I could, at that point.

Oh—and I was a Jedi too. And my black robes were very flattering.

Every time I watched the movies, in the years after they came out, I felt echoes of the me who’d longed for the whiny farm boy in the white tunic, the impatient apprentice in the orange flight suit, the somber man in Jedi black. I remembered my yearning for fantasy and escape so well that I still seemed to be feeling it.

Fantasy. Escape. Love. Youth. From 1977 to 1983, Star Wars and I were all about these things (which a Jedi craves not, perhaps. I never said I was devout).

Now, 32 years later, there’s a new film featuring the old faces. Old places too, though they might have different names (Tatooine has double vowels; Jakku has double consonants. Good enough). Old faces, old places, and the kind of fantasy and escape that will always feel young.

Manuscripts’ worth of reviews have already been written about Star Wars: The Force Awakens since it came out yesterday. Many of them have commented (whether favourably or scornfully) on the myriad ways in which it hews to the 1977 plot. Yes: secret plans in cute, blooping droids; baddies on a giant, killer space orb; lightsaber duels and face masks; parenting and mentoring gone badly wrong. All of this is back, but it all seems new.

One thing I haven’t yet read about, possibly because of the moratorium on spoilers, is Han and Leia. Everything moves fast, and the new, understandably, gets more screen time than the old, so we don’t see that much of them. What we do see, though, is remarkable. [Here begin my own fairly modest spoilers.] I imagine that, left to the man who created them, Han and Leia likely would have tied some sort of galactic knot a couple of days after that second Death Star blew and the Ewoks stopped drumming on Stormtrooper helmets. (Yub nub!) Thirty years later they’d still be together—happy, if careworn, bantering like the cocky smuggler and princess with hair buns I bet they’d always have been, to Lucas.

J.J. Abrams didn’t go there.

Maybe they were married, at some point: we don’t find out. They were a couple long enough to have a son and raise him to almost-adulthood; at one point Leia says something like, “I lost you when I lost him.” She’s still a princess; she’s also a general. He’s no longer a general; he’s back to being a smuggler. They are iterations of who they were 32 years ago—but they aren’t together. There’s regret between them. Sadness. A mature, weary connection that’s probably too complicated to be called love.

When Luke gazed at the Tatooine sunset, in Star Wars IV, the 7-year-old me imagined love. When Han and Leia gaze at each other, in Star Wars VII, I see what I’ve learned about it. Marriage, children, divorce. Regret, sadness, connection. Things that work, for a time, then don’t.

When I examine this critically, I acknowledge that, in ascribing depth and complexity to incredibly brief interactions, I may well be projecting almost as much today as I did back when. That’s OK, though. Star Wars first hit me at a time when my critical faculties were nascent at best (see first paragraph), and I feel no need to employ them now (likely something Abrams was banking on, and something he will, in fact, take to the bank). I’m going with it emotionally, as I always have—and the emotions are older. The connection is as real as the escape.

Thank the Maker.

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Pictures, Words and Thanks

The Flame in the Maze is real. Here I am at its debut, on December 7th.

Launch--thanks, Rosa!

Yes: it’s in the world—and it’s the end of the story I started writing years ago, in The Door in the Mountain. I’d be hazy on the precise number of those years, except that I remember writing a particular scene by Peter’s bedside in the hospital, as he recovered from almost dying of necrotizing fasciitis. February 2011, that was—and I was already a ways into the story. And now it’s finally done.

I don’t write acknowledgements in my books—something I’ve mentioned before, on this blog. But I have to thank someone, here and now: Samantha Beiko.

When The Pattern Scars was released, it came out in limited edition hardcover as well as trade paperback. That hardcover was a thing of almost unbearable beauty. Part of what made it so beautiful were its endpapers, which, my editor/publisher informed me, had been crafted by one Sam Beiko. Some young thing, insanely gifted in the visual arts department, who’d ended up in lucky ChiZine’s orbit.

Endpapers

This still gives me shivers. The best kind.

That was the end of 2011. In 2015, I discovered that Sam wasn’t only insanely gifted in the visual arts department: she was rich in words, too. She plunged into The Flame in the Maze: she commented and inquired; she recommended and annotated. She also identified a MAJOR chronological inconsistency I’d never noticed, and probably never would have.

The surpassing beauty of this new relationship ended up being its link to the past. Sam edited my words, yes, but she also took them and made them into an image—a map of this book, in all its twisty-turny permutations. I sent her a disaster of a Word file (with arrows and squiggly lines and small-caps text), and she turned it into this:

Timeline

So, Sam: I acknowledge you, with delight and thanks. Let’s do it again, sometime.

De Burgh Delight

Sometime in 1984, my friend Katherine gave me a mixed tape. (I just can’t bring myself to use the current “mixtape” spelling. I am middle-aged and refuse to be taught this new trick.) Sides A and B were chock-a-block with songs by a Chris de Burgh, from Ireland. I listened. I loved. The epic, balladic sweep of some of them; the quiet intimacy of others. The shameless sentimentality of most. (Even at 14, I was pretty clear on this quality.) I loved them all.

As the years went by, I wore out many more de Burgh cassettes, both mixed and purchased. I listened to them so often, in fact, that warped tape sounds became an integral part of my memories of the songs. I’d re-spool the most stubbornly self-destructive of the tapes, light-headed with dread—because if the re-spooling didn’t work there’d be nothing for it but to buy the thing again, and there was only so much allowance to go around.

When I was in grade 10, “The Tower”—a beautiful, lushly scored, fairy-tale parable of a song—inspired me to try something new: fan fiction (though I didn’t know this term at the time). I took de Burgh’s words, his story, and transformed them into my own. Somehow I ended up giving the two typed pages to my grade 10 history teacher to read (such a browner, me)—and she, in turn, read them to her young daughter. This was a breakthrough moment in my writerly life: someone I didn’t know had listened to and loved something I’d written. (So thrilled was I that it didn’t occur to me until much later that Mrs. Whelan might have been embellishing, or even outright lying, to spare my feelings.)

Katherine and I realized the dream of our teenage lives in grade 11, when we saw Chris de Burgh at Maple Leaf Gardens. Apparently my sing-along gusto was intensely embarrassing to her, and possibly unsettling to those around us in the nosebleed seats. I was oblivious to all that. “Borderline”? “Spaceman”? “Transmission Ends”? I was transported; I had to sing.

Last night, way too many years after that Maple Leaf Gardens magic, Katherine and I saw him again, from our definitely-not-nosebleed-seats at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. I didn’t know the first song, but I was in tears anyway, the moment he started singing it. Serious, streaming tears.

Another time he made me cry? When I was 14, lying in my bedroom—lit only with glow-in-the-dark-stars, once the other lights were off—listening as his voice rose to unbearable sweetness: And when you lie beside me / Soft and quiet in the night / I often listen to the rhythm of your heartbeat giving life… I had no idea how to deal with the intensity of my own longing. It was huge. It hurt. It hurt that I hadn’t felt anything close to what he was singing about; for some reason it also hurt knowing that I would, someday. Last night I cried because I was right, at 14, and because I was 14, once, and because his voice is still so sweet.

“The Lady in Red”, possibly his most famous song, was one of my least favourite. Still: when it came on at the 1986 Crescent Boys’ School semi-formal, I was wearing a red dress and my very first heels (2 inches at most), and my boyfriend wrapped his hockey-player arms around me and buried his face in my hair and sang along, in his tone-deaf way, and life just couldn’t have been better. Last night—yup. Tears, as I remembered.

And we met someone. Katherine was on my left; on my right was a young man named Sina, a doctor who came to Toronto from Iran six years ago. Just a year later, de Burgh performed in Iran with a prominent group of Iranian musicians. At last night’s concert, during the closing chords of another song I didn’t recognize (one of the sentimental ones, full of “I love you”s, both sung and projected, in a variety of languages), I heard Sina suck in his breath. Not just him, either—many of the audience members. “That last thing he said,” Sina told me, “was ‘I love you’ in Farsi. And did you hear? Did you hear how many Persians there are here, who understood?”

After de Burgh and his backing orchestra performed “Spanish Train”, Sina’s must-hear song, he turned to me and smiled a huge, dazzling smile and declared, “Now I can die happy.” Delighted, delightful hyperbole—and he told me I could quote him.

It was a pretty sodden, wondrous evening, all in all. A celebration of a precious and enduring friendship; a deep plunge into nostalgia, and the crazy-liberating joy of songs that aren’t ironic at all, and don’t care to be. An encounter with a person for whom these things matter too.

Life just couldn’t have been better.

Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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