We’re all the same deep down, or “it’s all a matter of degree”


(with thanks to Brian Dolton, for sparking this one off)

The above is something that I’ve often heard quoted when speaking of “writing the Other” [1]. And I’ve been struggling with it ever since I heard it; because it rings fishy to me. And yet there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it; and indeed, much that is right. Of course we’re all human beings. We’re born and we live and we age and we die. We love and we care and we hate and we fear. We have parents and grandparents and some sort of family; and a non-insignificant bunch of us will have friends and children and partners. There’s a whole spectrum of experiences and emotions that we share on what, for want of a better word, I think of as the human continuum. And, given that a few centuries ago people of a different colour or gender or creed were thought of as no better than beasts, I’m certainly not going to complain at the impulse to declare us all part of the same species.

At the same time… I think the main problem I have with the above sentences is that they’re too reductive: they go straight to what they see as “the essential”, and forget that our lives are often made up of many large and small details, of a mosaic of beliefs and cultural mores which comes from the environment we’ve been raised in, the society we’ve moving in, the subcultures we’re members of, the people we frequent… Yeah, we’re all the same deep down, but, broadly speaking, life in Hồ Chí Minh City follows very different rhythms from life in Paris; and the social structure and attitudes can also be very different [2]. Similarly, of course French politics are like US politics, but for a matter of degree; but that doesn’t get across the way that those two are fundamentally un-alike, and the myriad differences that make French politics characteristics of France.

Of course there’s nothing like “French-ness”, or “Black-ness”, or “Asian-ness”–and of course you don’t want characters who are walking stereotypes (personally, if I see one more Eastern mystical master, or one more Asian family obsessed with school grades and arranged marriages, I’ll hit someone). But the reverse approach, the one that advocates that “we’re all the same deep down”, is a bit like globalisation to me: instead of being a vibrant celebration of what makes us different, globalisation tends to smooth everything into an over-arching culture (which is a mix of European/US cultural mores, to oversimplify). Or like “universal stories”, which so often tend to be the Hollywood variety (rather than, say, the Bollywood or Nollywood one, to take just two examples).

This approach assumes that everyone in every country wants the same things: which might the case if you go deep enough, but is intensely problematic if you stop, say, at tastes in food, or beauty standards, or cultural values. And, like globalisation, the “we’re all the same” approach tends to lead to characters who might feel powerfully individual, but who basically remain 21st-Century US/European people in costume with a few “exotic” [3] words thrown in: it makes a mockery of all that makes us different.

In other words, saying “everyone is the same deep down” carries the risk of being boiled down to “everyone is like me”, and that in turn can lead to thinking everyone has the same beliefs and culture as you do, aka imposing your own thought processes on others at the expense of their own.

So, yeah. We’re all the same deep down. Except for a matter of degree. But degree is a huge thing.

This isn’t my most articulate post. I’m fully aware that I’m struggling to pinpoint why I disagree with the above assumptions; and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded in putting my thoughts down on, er, blog electrons. I guess it broadly boils to a matter of balance between two ends of the same problem: characters as walking stereotypes, and characters as entirely similar to the writer or the assumed majority audience (both stemming from an incomprehension of difference, and to some extent for me, a tolerance fail). Am I making sense to you? What do you think?

[1]I also have issues with this expression, but I’m going to stick to one problematic assertion per blog post…
[2]They can also be eerily similar in some respects; and yes, they’re going to hugely depend on who you are and where you live in both cities. But my point is that they don’t coincide 100%, or even 90%. There’s overlap, but no equivalence (yes, I’m a maths geek 🙂 )
[3]”exotic” is another of those words that makes me want to hit something, just in case you have a doubt. Especially when it’s applied to food I happen to have eaten and enjoyed since childhood.

(picture credits: nanarmitvn on stock.xchng)


FYI re US tropes…


Here’s a link to the US tropes post in my LJ mirror, which has a very interesting comment thread, particularly on the way Hollywood and the US functions in exporting movies and other cultural items; on the history of the US as a technological process; and on the fact the tropes I mention seem to be particularly associated with retreating empires (such as Britain in the mid-20th Century). Well worth checking out. Again, thanks to everyone for commenting, clarifying, disputing and discussing. It’s been very illuminating.

Meanwhile, we’re running out of boxes, and will be packing the eletronics next…

On SF and simplicity


la_marquise_de_ has a wonderful post about what history is for (short answer: nothing, it just is), and she finishes it by stating that expecting something to be “obviously and economically useful” is a very Western (and unhealthy) assumption. This, in turn, set me to digging up a couple thoughts about SF I had at the bottom of the drawer.

See, I’ve heard those thoughts before about useful things. The “utilitarian” approach (ie, it can’t exist unless it’s good for something) is also very strongly present in genre, and I hadn’t realised how much.

For instance, there’s a lot of advice about keeping things as short as possible, about making scenes do double duty, about avoiding bulky infodumps. There’s advice about keeping a clear and readable style, not getting into the reader’s way, and so forth. In other words: do not waste words. Do not waste the reader’s time. Do not be fanciful. Always be useful and give bang for the buck. If the book is thick, it had damned well be because every word counts.

There’s also a lot of advice about writing an SF story that boils down to being economical: for instance, the school of thought of the Novum (the idea that a true SF story should be about one technology/piece of technology, and following its resonance into society, ie most minor modification you can think of) definitely fits this. And how many times have you heard that a novel should be easily summarised and boiled down to an elevator pitch–and that, if you can’t, it has to be because there is a problem in the structure of the novel itself?

There is also this pernicious idea that stories have to depend on the technology or they’re not true SF: I say “pernicious” because on the one hand, I understand where we’re coming from in trying to define genre, to separate it from mainstream (though I’m not entirely sure I approve, but that’s another story)–but on the other, if you think about it, this basically amounts to saying “this setting/detail had better be useful” (sort of like Novum to the Nth power). This also comes in flavours of “this plot had better be useful” (aka, it has to have a point, an arc, a theme or whathaveyou), and in “this character had better be useful” (aka, the characters who are not essential to the plot shouldn’t be there [1])–and my favourite, the special alternate history bonus: an alternate history setting has to explicitly tell us something about our own world, or it might as well not exist.

And I find this… troubling.

We can see the results of this approach everywhere, I think (and to some extent, this goes beyond literature); and I don’t think we’ve necessarily gone good places with this. The “utilitarian” approach does have good sides (I’m not advocating we should let authors ramble on and on without firm editing), but it comes with strong dangers: it encourages simple stories with a to-the-point-backdrop and plot. It creates stories that are deliberately simplistic, with pre-catalogued plots, a cast of characters as thin as paper, and a world that can be summed up in one or two key concepts. It thins out the author’s voice (and authorial intervention), and ends up arbitrarily restricting what one can and can’t do with a story.
It prevents novels from being filled with random worldbuilding, with random acts and facts–whereas life itself is full of random things, of details that don’t fit in with each other–of plots that cut off and don’t necessarily make sense by the end.

And, most serious from where I stand, it plays on our already-exacerbated Western tendencies to tie everything into neat narratives, and also ends up reinforcing those tendencies–because, if you keep reading novels that have a point, you’ll soon expect all novels to have a point.
Similarly, the hunger for simple narrative has gone beyond fiction: there’s a general drive towards wanting simple accounts for a phenomenon, and single-factor explanations.
And that’s just not how things work in life.
Case in point (and brief digression): the Rio-Paris Air France crash. Nearly all media stressed one possible explanation (the pilots are to blame, for instance, which seems the majority vote). The truth is, like most accidents, this was a combination of improbable and serious events that led to the plane plunging downwards, and it’s impossible to pinpoint which incident “crashed” the plane. They all did: had even one circumstance gone differently, the plane would still be there. But people prefer the single-factor explanation. It’s simple. It makes sense. Why look for more?
Except, of course, that the single-factor explanation is bunk.

Stories didn’t use to be that simple. Les Misérables doesn’t work that way. Sure, you can argue that it’s a book about the redemption of Jean Valjean–but that completely fails to tell us about the book. You can argue it’s about poverty and the life of the destitute–and sure, it is that too. But the book is much more complex than that; it has a multitude of facets–a multitude of minor characters who all have their own lives (and if you only kept those necessary to the plot, it would be a much poorer book)–and this makes it breathe. This makes it real. This makes full; and fulfilling.

I’m not saying you won’t take anything away from Les Misérables or Dream of Red Mansions (that last being pretty much the epitome of “plotless” for me, but utterly wonderful nevertheless). Of course you will. Of course you’ll find your own lessons, and your own interpretations.
But to want novels and/or worldbuilding to be as simple as possible feels wrong to me–like we’re cutting off our own limbs because, after all, they’re not really necessary/economical… It reminds me of Karl Marx’s “religion is the opium of the people”. By this, he meant that religion gave people what they wanted–the illusion of stability and purpose–and kept them from realising they were exploited; we seemed to have moved to “fiction is our opium”–into a world where fiction satisfies our cravings for simplicity, and prevents us from realising how complex and difficult the real world can be.

So, anyway, that’s what I see. I’d never realised before how much it worried me, or how many of those things came together in a solid (and utterly wrong, at least from my POV) vision of the world according to fiction [2].

What do you think? Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments (specifically, if you want to disagree, do go ahead. I could use some reassurance here… [3])

[1] Wanting few characters in a novel didn’t apply in Ancient China, for instance: the list of Romance of the Three Kingdoms characters fills out half a thick volume; and the Chinese wouldn’t have considered the story realistic unless it listed tons of minor and major characters.

[2] I’m mostly thinking of popular fiction here (genre), and particularly of US fiction, but I do see it elsewhere.

[3]I’m aware we do have a counter-culture to this: we do have people seeking to make novels complex and organic; but I’m getting the strong feeling they’re the minority vote…

Some thoughts on cuisine and culture


So, I’m still perusing Irene Kuo’s Key to Chinese Cooking, and along the way I happened on a chapter that talked about Asian noodles, and how you could basically substitute spaghetti for Chinese egg noodles. Which struck me as odd because they don’t taste anything alike, but… see, the book was written in the Seventies, and back then, finding genuine egg noodles in the middle of the US must have been really hard (to some extent, it’s still freaking hard to find proper egg noodles in my part of the Parisian suburbs). And this put me in mind of a conversation I was having with a friend of mine, about how nước mắm used to be so hard to find in France, so the very first recipes that the Vietnamese immigrants came up had to make do with soy sauce… (which again tastes nothing like nước mắm)

It all comes back to a subject I find fascinating: the authenticity of cuisine–something I see crop up a lot on the internet, especially with regards to cookbooks. What makes an authentic recipe? What is and is not an acceptable variant? [1] How should a cuisine as a whole be judged? Because truth is, like cultures, cuisines merge and adapt, and evolve. Sometimes, they adapt because they don’t have basic ingredients: there’s a very cute Vietnamese cookbook in French, Le Chant du Riz Pilé (Song of Crushed/Ground Rice), which makes do without half the Vietnamese staples, because it’s an old book and those staples weren’t available in France at the time.

Sometimes, they merge with other cultures: the most well-known Vietnamese dishes, phở and bánh mì, didn’t actually exist before the turn of the 20th Century: they’re creations made in the melting pot between Vietnamese and French culture. Likewise, there’s a pretty common Vietnamese dish, thịt bò khô (beef stew), which has more than a few common points with an equally famous French dish, boeuf bourguignon (the Vietnamese version has more spices and herbs, but it’s strikingly similar). French cuisine now, as compared to the one at the turn of the century, has grown to include Mediterranean dishes such as taboulé and couscous, and Italian pasta have basically become part of every cook’s repertoire.

In the specific case of immigrants, new dishes become created, whether for the diaspora or for a foreign audience: General Tsao’s Chicken is a pretty good example of a typical Chinese-American dish that you won’t find in Chinese restaurants in France (and, if Wikipedia is correct, which isn’t always the case, a dish that the Chinese in China didn’t much appreciate).
Dishes fall out of favour, or become only cooked within the home of immigrants, because the majority doesn’t appreciate them: there is a fascinating phenomenon whereby most foreign restaurants in a given country will serve the same staples, because they’re the ones that the the majority of people appreciate (it can be because the majority of people is not immigrants, and is freaked out by stuff like pig’s ears; but it can also be because ingredients just aren’t the same. In Vietnamese cooking, chicken used to be a luxury, served mostly for feasts; but when the Vietnamese arrived in France and in the US, they found chicken was available really cheap, and so chicken began to feature on the menu a lot more than in Vietnam). Most Chinese restaurants in France serve the same things; the few Chinese restaurants I tried in the US also served the same things–but not at all the same as the French Chinese restaurants. It’s a fascinating process of accretion, whereby some parts of the cuisine just vanish, and some others acquire a disproportionate weight, depending on where and when the immigration happens. [2]

And, sometimes, things just change because time passes, and mentalities change. French cuisine used to rely a lot on butter for cooking ingredients, and on stuff like homemade stocks. Today, we’re more health-conscious (I don’t use butter, though I do know people who still do), and we’re more pressed for time–so the time-consuming parts of cooking such as making stock tend to get skipped (again, I do know people who make stock. It’s just not the norm anymore). What my French great-grandparents considered a good meal probably would have made me sick; and what I eat today would probably seem strange to them (even sticking to broadly French/European dishes. Let’s leave the nước mắm out of this for the moment…)

Not to mention, of course, that each of us have their own background and their own cuisine, often passed on from parent to child. The H considers his mother’s recipes to be the reference for a lot of things, and will scoff at other recipes (not because they’re inauthentic, but because he thinks they just don’t taste as good). I make my own stuff, mostly pastry, and the odd Vietnamese-French fusion dish (especially when my pantry is bare and all I have lying around are shallots, garlic and nước mắm. You wouldn’t believe what you can improvise with those around). Every French person has a different idea of what good French cooking is, and they’ll likely pass on some of it on to their friends and family–and get stuff passed on to them, as well, from their friends and family.

Yes, I know. I’m having a philosophical moment because of a cookbook. But still… it’s really fascinating stuff. Cuisine as a metaphor for culture. There you go, the thought of the day 🙂

[1] Mileage varies a lot, but here’s a hint as far as I’m concerned: don’t try to sell me chả giò (fried rolls) made with egg roll wrappers (chả giò should be made with rice paper). Egg roll wrappers are for Chinese or other Asian cuisines; the only Vietnamese dish I know which makes use of is a variant of wontons.
[2] There’s also the “restaurant effect”: restaurants tend to serve festive food that you can’t make at home; therefore, most people’s perception of foreign cuisines is really skewed, because the signature dishes tend to be extravagant dishes that are only served for feasts. One good example in France is chả giò, fried rolls, which everyone associates with Vietnamese cuisine in spite of the fact that it’s hardly part of an every day Vietnamese meal.

Common misconceptions about the Aztecs


It occurred to me I did this kind of post for Ancient China, but never got around to it for the Aztecs…

The jungle. Ok, if I had a cookie every time the romantic and torrid jungle atmosphere was mentioned in connection with the Aztecs, my kitchen would be overflowing. The Aztecs were a people of Central Mexico, with NO jungles whatsoever in a radius of several dozen kilometers. Their country was wet marshes; and after the wet marshes, high mountains with dry and cold weather. To get the jungle, you had to go down to the south–a week’s march or more, beyond the boundaries of the empire for most of its existence–, and enter the bits that are now the South of Mexico and Guatemala. Those are Maya lands (see below for Aztecs, Mayas and Incas). There is a lot of jungle-based imagery in Aztec mythology (jaguars and quetzals, for instace), precisely because those jungles were far-off lands the Aztecs didn’t see every day and thus acquired an aura of magic and preciousness, a bit like the Orient in the 19th Century became this glamorous place where everything was larger than life.
And Apocalypto is a terrible movie about Mesoamerican people, incidentally (it depicts life among the Maya, but does a terrible job of it).

Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, it’s all the same, isn’t it? Er, yeah, sure. Just as the Finns, the Spanish and the Ancient Greek are secretly all one people. The Aztecs, as said above, occupied the centre of Mexico from the 14th to the 16th Century; the Mayas held the South of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, etc., for a longer time than this (the last Maya city fell in the 17th or 18th Century, and the Mayas had been around for a while, even though their culture had changed a lot by then). The Incas were in Peru, which is more than three thousand kilometers from any of the aforementioned countries.

The Empire: or lack thereof. You often find references to the “Aztec Empire”, which immediately evokes a political structure akin to the Roman Empire, ie a unified territory under the rule of a centralised administration. Truth is, the Aztecs were nowhere as organised. The word “hegemony” would be a better description of how they ruled: strictly speaking, they had under political control only a very small bit (the centre around their capital Tenochtitlan). When they conquered a new city-state, they didn’t integrate it by modifying the power structure: they tended to keep the ruling family in place, and force them to pay tribute to Tenochtitlan. And that was pretty much it. There was no attempt at political, territorial or even cultural homogenisation: the Aztecs spread by extending their tribute area, and you didn’t have an empire so much as a collection of loose city states owing a very loose form of allegiance to Tenochtitlan. (the Incas, on the other hand, were very good at the Empire business, sometimes relocating entire populations in order to make sure the political cohesion was preserved). It’s part of the reason the Aztecs fell so quickly: their hold was so tenuous (but still grudgingly felt, considering their demands for exorbitant tribute), that the Spanish had no trouble convincing the rulers of the neighbouring city-states to support them instead of the Aztecs.

All bloodthirsty savages, I tell you: not going to linger on that one because I’ve harped on it enough, but of course not true. Human sacrifice is a bit of an arresting custom, which means that any other achievements tend to get lost under the weight of disapproval. The Aztecs were awesome astronomers, pretty good physicians for a medieval time period, and they also had a pretty equalitarian society (again, for the time period), with possibilities for commoners to reach pretty high on the social ladder, and a fair amount of women’s rights (right to divorce and inherit, for instance) that most medieval societies tended to forget altogether.

We’re very well informed about what the Aztecs were like: ha. Mostly, not that much. The conquistadores did a terrific job of destroying the Aztec culture as they found it: there are Aztec descendants, and a handful of codices, but the evidence of how the Aztecs lived is terribly thin. As far as monuments go, again, there are very few Aztec monuments left: the shiny pyramids everyone thinks of when the Aztecs are mentioned tend to be those of Teotihuacan (which predates the Aztecs by 5 centuries or more), and of course Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, which means very few remains of the Aztec capital.

How I made a book trailer (part 2 of 2)


This is part 2 on a post chronicling my trailer-making experiments. For part 1 see here.

Here’s the Harbinger trailer again, so you can see what I’m talking about:

Step 4: Get Music
This has always been the trickiest part for me. Basically, you need a soundtrack you can cut up and modify (I’ll come back to syncing the music and the images later), and I had a lot of trouble finding those. A quick survey of people doing their own books trailers showed them either using public domain stuff (like old interpretations of classical music), or having musician friends/acquaintances who could provide them with slightly cheaper alternatives to mainstream music (I don’t even want to know how much the majors charge for using bits of song, given how bad they are at authorising authors to quote lyrics for a reasonable sum of money).
Continue reading →

How I made a trailer (part 1 of 2)


Those posts have been in the queue for a while, but I’ve never had the leisure to properly edit them before putting them online.

Basically, I thought I’d share my experience in making book trailers. It’s limited: I made my first book trailer in 2009 in the leadup to the release of Servant of the Underworld, and reiterated the process a year later when I made the trailer for Harbinger of the Storm. To my surprise, the HoU trailer was highlighted on a number of websites as being attractive, which proves that at least I got something right.

As usual, I’m not saying this is the way to go: just pointing out what worked for me, and what I learnt in the process. I’d be delighted to hear other people’s experience on the subject.

Continue reading →

Guest post at the Apex blog: On series and (lack of) planning


The wonderful M.G. Ellington has been kind enough to lend me some space on the Apex blog, where I ramble on what I should have done when writing Obsidian and Blood:

When I settled down to write my novel, the Aztec noir fantasy Servant of the Underworld, I had only the vaguest idea it might turn into a series. My first thought was to finish the darn thing, and not really to map out what might be happening to my characters after the plot was over.

That was 2007; now we’re in 2010. I’ve sold Servant and two more books in the Obsidian and Blood trilogy to Angry Robot; I’ve turned the sequel, Harbinger of the Storm, to my publisher; and I’ve just completed a tentative synopsis for the as-yet-untitled book 3. Looking back to how I wrote the series, there are a few things I did right, and a few things I should have paid more attention to.

Read more.

Go check it out!

In other linkage news, Mike Johnstone reviews the February 2010 issue of Asimov’s, which contains my alt-hist “The Wind-Blown Man”:

Her prose deftly taps into the atmosphere, rhythm, and thoughtfulness of Chinese tales (Buddhist, Taoist myths): it is measured, unhurried, soothing; it suggests a depth just tantalizingly out of reach.

That’s all for now. I’ll go back to RL stuff and programming (and %% implicit conversions).