Monthly Archives: January 2016

Castaglioni and Macchiaveli are Having a Magic Fight, or Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

There are far more than two books on the status and duties of the courtier, but for the purposes of my understanding of Tigana, a beloved classic of fantasy fiction, these two texts seem to be dueling each other in the fantasy realms of the palm. Macchiaveli may need no introduction, and certainly seemed to be directly riffed in Tigana, when an efficient and cruel counselor to one of the powerful mages describes how he will place the avaricious and selfish Nero in charge of collecting taxes, knowing, as he does, that Nero will be an awful tyrant. Then, Nero will be arrested and killed, and an effective and benevolent servant of the king shall be installed, instead. This is directly the tactics of Macchiaveli’s advice. Certainly, the emissary of the empire, and tyrant of three duchies of the Palm, who moved without love or passion or pity in his task of conquest felt a character straight out of Macchiavelli: effective, brutal, distant, and cautious. Yet, in many ways, these courts felt more like the realm of another text of courtly behavior by Castaglioni. Castaglioni’s historically influential, but ultimately lesser text was a grand debate of how courtiers should do and be courtiers. The nobility of the courtier should be evident in everything they do, as well as the superiority. These renaissance men, who are skilled at a wide variety of tasks, go about the business of the king with grace and perfect honesty. They excel whether asked to be an administrator, or a soldier, or a singer, or artist. Whatever they do is to be done with the flourish of one who belongs in the sphere of power. This reduction of the complex and long tome is, like all reductions, not quite correct, but it serves as an example of the way of thinking that goes into the sort of fantasy heroes that we are accustomed to seeing in many genre texts. These nimble, skillful courtiers are comfortable plucking harps, seducing women, or leading vast armies without a beat lost, unflinching and succeeding at whatever duty comes to them.

When one is playing as the main character, for example, in Dragon Age, one is always feeling the importance of the individual character being played. Non-player characters respond to the player as if there is an aura of command and power and potential present. Fools who dare to question this power are often the subject of the game’s combat mechanics, enshrining through repetition the idea that the player is above the rest of the people in the game, and is to be respected and given grand tasks to perform worthy of his/her skills. This notion is derived directly from the sort of heroic writing that appears in Tigana. Ultimately, it is the competence of all the characters, their sheer courtly ability, that undermines the otherwise beautiful book. The main characters are simply too good at what they do! I was reminded of the video games during a section when the character, Baerd, stumbles in the dark upon a great and terrible night quest reserved for those born under a certain sign. This is the perfect random encounter, straight out of a video game. He is the chosen one, the prophesied one, who will turn the tide of the Night War that he knew nothing about until stumbling upon a cabin the night. It was a side quest, straight out of a video game, where a series of symbolic actions took place in a dreamlike world that ultimately became a symbol of the larger text, but it did not feel like more than the sort of things players would experience in video games while stumbling across new areas of a map.

There were a handful of moments where main characters failed at what they set out to do in a meaningful way. There were only a handful of deaths along the way, as well. I observed, detached, as the amazing and noble and god-blessed prince arranged a complex series of events that could, on the one hand, be described as Macchiavelian in the modern parlance, but felt far more like the sheer perfection of the Courtier’s in their varied pursuits. Whether in music, trade, statecraft, swordplay, or even negotiating two bowshots from a charging horse in the night over the shoulder at a force of raiders chasing him – an impossible shot! – both arrows found their marks. Could he do wrong? Could he have failed more?

Perhaps there could have been a little more folly in this fool’s quest.

Despite this, it is still a beloved classic, and rightly so. For the same reason these sorts of stories inspire us to continue questing on, reading on, and watching heroic events unfold before us in impossible realms, the characters themselves found their inspirations in the actions of their fathers and grandfathers, who had somehow managed to do an impossible thing in defeating an invading  wizard’s unstoppable force in battle once. The wizard lost his heir and his heart. He took away the very name and identity of the place he conquered with a powerful curse. This curse could only be broken by the inspiration of the idea that it carried with it, and the weight of the demand upon the new generation of heroes that felt that deep inspiration. As difficult as it can be to see the text as anything but escapism, the author seems aware enough of his own artistry to permit the text to try and debate itself on this tactic of near-perfectionism, or Courtierism. A great question that hangs over every characters’ head in the text is their duty as a courtier to a great king, whether as a concubine in the stable of the usurper, or the Captain of the Guard to a wicked tyrant, or a singer on the road who stumbles into the pages of history.

In the end, perhaps there is an attempt to find a middle ground between the rank Macchiavelian imperial tyrant, and the devoted, emotional, shrewd wizard king whose every calculation begins with love and ends with tyrrany. Perhaps both are wrong, somehow, and something else is true. Standing over the nearly-dead daughter of a coward, one potential king, alone, finds it in his heart to absolve the sins of his former kingdom, and their faithlessness, and to seek a healing outside of his own, selfish ends. Unlike either the wicked and brutal tyrant of the Empire, and the loving and emotional wizard king, the Prince of Tigana never, ever asked for the enslavement of the people to his will. The loyalty they offer him is their own choice, always and unto the end of the book.

Despite my misgivings and the echoes of the video games that came long after this text, it is hard to argue with the careful awareness that Guy Gavriel Kay maintains that things may be hard to believe, at times. He is always careful to set up the coincidences of the text, and the twists. He is always ready to offer the expedience of faith and magic when a ring in a deep ocean must be found. This skillful sheen is enough to carry the music, and to make a journey of it. It is an easy book to love, and very hard not to enjoy.

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A series of photos and some news

My story “Farmer” was in the January/February Analog SF, and now, in March, my story “Snowbirds” is featured with my name on the cover and everything.

Here are photos of various things I have been puttering with while writing and working…

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Religious Debate and Death in the Netherlands, or Ritual by Cees Nooteboom

In one of the odd quirks of personal history, I met Mr. Nooteboom once, briefly, while I was an undergraduate in Houston, and he was flown in by the department to give a reading from this book. I recall he stood at the door and shook people’s hands, but this could be a false memory or delusion after nearly two decades. I failed for many years to actually locate the book he had read from, after the reading, because it was very hard to get the proper spelling and/or pronunciation of his name out of my memory hole, and I never really wanted to seek it until after I had left the university and most of the people there. Fortune smiled on me, though, encountering stories and reviews about Dutch writers in my efforts to always expand my intellectual horizons with some country or culture I haven’t read lately, I saw a photograph of the man, smiling among his cohort, and I recognized him in a flash. The sailor, the gruff, the weather-beaten, the iconic Cees Nooteboom looks as much like the idea of what an author is supposed to be as anyone in this world. Pleased to recall the reading he gave at the University of Houston, once upon a time in around 2001, I sought out a copy of the novel from which I believe he had read: Rituals.

Is this too much to say to introduce the book? It is perhaps related to the density and high intellectual intent of the book, in question, that I hesitate to open discussion. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied with the book, but I believe it was an intentional unsatisfaction.

There are what I consider three major sections of the text. First, an independently wealthy Dutchman convinces his wife to abort their child, while he leads a life many would consider quintessentially wasted. He sleeps around. He produces no great works. He has friends, but they are men like him: wealthy and bored and inventing purposes for themselves pursuing the unattainable and divine in some fashion. It just so happens that Inni Wintrop, the man in question, finds his divinity through a kind of idealized sexuality that feels magically unreal and urbane… He never really works to seduce the women. He simply discovers that it is possible to sleep with them, and he does it. He is quite horrified and jealous and hurt to discover that his wife falls in love with an Italian photographer and leaves him. This description I have given does not quite do the text justice. The rituals of sexuality are sensuously illuminated, and the relationship carefully put together to build to the moment where all is lost. It is gorgeously composed, and a testament to the power of good style that such an otherwise mundane and cliche narrative with a character as uninteresting as Inni Wintrop at the center of it can be so powerful.

The second section involves the childhood of Inni Wintrop, and places the rituals in a larger context against the backdrop of a wealthy old Dutch family, and their quirky and abrasive family friend Arnold Taads, a devoted and proud atheist and misanthrope who loves his dog more than any of his friends. The charismatic man seems to swallow the aimless Inni up in a vortex of ideas. There is a dinner party where the avowed and outspoken atheist Arnold Taads debates a clergyman uncle with some of the most unforgettable imagery in the book illuminating the futility of all debate between someone who believes and someone who does not. There is no way around the fundament of belief/unbelief, even among such brilliant minds as are present there. Naturally, Taads comes to a lonely and unhappy end, dying in the snow while climbing a mountain of his own constructed solitude. He was a sort of monk of atheism, in his way, and had the death of one. I am glad to meet Taads in the book, but would cringe to meet him in life.

The final section involves art collectors, a world of ritual, as well, that seems to be a way to find purpose without finding God. In this section, Arnold Taads estranged and angry son appears unexpectedly. The text is probably weakest in this section, where the characters seem to be moving philosophically instead of spiritually or even with any impetus towards plausability of a fiction novel. But, this isn’t exactly a novel so much as it is a poetic treatise and should not be considered a narrative as anything other than that. It attempts to illuminate the rituals that give meaning to people’s lives and deaths. Without rituals, who would any of these men, be? Without the strict schedule of Arnold Taads, where not even an unexpected and beloved guest is permitted to deviate from the schedule, would he still be the man he is? Without the obsession with an idealized and unreal version of ancient Japanese tea rituals, would the younger Taads continue to exist as a distinct person in the flood of the world around him he so despised? And the cipher to all these events, the sensualist Winthrop, with his elaborate ritualized sex and death games, pushing back against his own mortality and insecurity in certain and sudden seductions, would he be anything at all?

It is a very European sort of novel, and suitable for an afternoon where one feels philosophical. It is a text that blurs the line between novel and philosophy and carries some sharp edges where this occasionally fails, but it is ultimately a rewarding thought piece with lots of gorgeous, gorgeous lines to savor. I can only imagine what it must sound like in the original Dutch.

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Architecture is always a Utopian Vision

It is easy to say, when standing inside the beautiful and elegant Kimbell Art Museum an argument for a beautiful, lasting world, where the sunlight shines through gently, and the peace of history descends upon the contemplative space. It is also easy to view such masterpieces as Falling Water as a kind of Utopian space, where structure and habitation organically integrate with land and landscape, and the interior space and exterior space sort of blur together into a clean, beautiful dream. It is harder to think about more common landscapes as Utopian visions, but they are.

I recently went to a strip mall at the corner of two highways. I sat in a cafe, there, where the miniscule interior, though comfy enough, was deeply secondary to the drive through apparatus that was the true engine of commerce there. Inside, the chairs are no longer oversized, and there’s a long communal table covered in plug connections. There is no illusion, anymore, that this is a communal gathering place, like it used to be. This is a place not for conversation, much, but more for people to stare at a screen somewhere that is no longer their house. The WiFi is excellent, as is the caffeine. This is no longer a cafe as a relaxing third space. The noise and bustle of the drive-thru is too jarring for that. No, this is a space where people come to work out in the world, together and isolated at once. Everyone is smiling and polite, but there is a distance between us all. The person behind the counter never truly crosses over into communion with the people on the other side of it, never truly abandons the shell of the corporation of which he or she is a representative. The people never reach across a table and speak about interesting and dangerous things, like in the coffee houses of so long ago. All illusions of this are lost, and the architecture reflects it. There are places to plug in. The lighting is dim, but not too dim, which is perfect for lit screens. The drive-thru scares away anyone who is interested in talking without headphones on. This is a utopian space, arguing for what Americans do in the mornings and lazy afternoons. We are drinking coffee, a vital stimulant for our society, and we are connected to our machines, whether at work or play. We live inside the cloud of data always connected to the machine in front of us. We talk more into the machine to reach another person when we are out and about than we talk to the persons around us we do not already know.

The Utopian future of the strip mall, where everything is clean and affordable, and the customer service always makes the customer feel like they are important in that space, the center of everything, is a vision of a future that someone dreamed. It is as much a product of the modern notions of how new things should be purchased as it is an expression of commercial interest. The reason it proves itself is through ubiquity and success. They are everywhere, in every level of repair and disrepair, and they tend to stay in business in some fashion or other, where the shops are good and the anchor chain is good and the community has money to spend on convenience and things. The parking lots spread out like desert plains, with no life in them. What plants there are get pushed around the sides, trimmed low to maintain safe visibility for automobile drivers, and are maintained as ornamentals, only, and sprayed with whatever works regardless of ecological impact. The whole set up is built for people in cars to feel like this is convenient, an escape from the drudgery of the house and chores, a place to sneak out at work and have someone take our orders for a change, make us feel like we are the center of everything.

This is the argument of the strip mall in the space of life: the customer is the center of the world, and everything that is must serve the customer. It is sort of wonderful to sit in that cafe, with my head phones on, and type into a screen, and feel important. It is a vision of the future that I can see as broken, even as I enjoy my time at the center of the universe, of my own little universe, while typing on a little machine in a dark room beside an espresso machine.

Every piece of architecture is designed to serve a purpose, and in that service of purpose, a vision for the future of that space is made real, and presented to the world as a possible future for everything.

Please, God, don’t let strip malls be our future. Let it be a field of flowers, and trees, and having enough on hand to never need, and speaking more to the person who is present than the person who is not there.

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A Gardening Book as Re-Learning the Past to Save the Future

I live in a transitional climate, where the hill country is a little this way, and the desert is a little that way, and the sweltering coastline is a little in another direction. Some seasons, the weather is more of a desert, and others it’s more of a coastal plain, and in some others, it’s more like the hill country. I am always interested to learn how native communities on my patch of ground survived and thrived for thousands of years before my people came and took everything away and wiped away generations of regional knowledge about agriculture and human survival. In many ways, the European-style land management methods have destroyed the landscape, stripping topsoil and bringing European lawns out into the deep desert, where the grass is always lush and green.

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty, by Gary Paul Nabhan is a fascinating text that combines practical application, anthropological investigation, and warnings of things to come as the climate shifts into a useful, little book for anyone interested in thinking like a desert farmer, and re-learning the techniques and food crops that fed advanced civilizations in Morocco, North America, and China for thousands of years. Simple, practical things, like planting Century Plants and Prickly Pear Cactus at the edge of terraces to hold the structural shape of the dirt at the edges, to gathering and utilizing storm run-off in the fields as fertilizer can be implemented on small scale garden systems. More advanced techniques for landscape designers with formulas and design tenets that will be very useful with larger-scale implementations.

Even more interesting than this were the many little stories and firsthand accounts throughout the text, incorporating things like tales of the Desert Fathers of the Mideast and North Africa, who once upon a time went into the desert to survive and pursue their faith in the raw, exposed landscape. Also present are firsthand accounts by living gardeners and farmers that share their experiences and techniques. These stories and firsthand accounts expand the text into something that speaks to the traditions that have been passed down from one generation to another. Each seed carries the history of the seed. There is a tradition behind every genetic line of cultivated crop. Connecting into that sense of history, and sense of traditions being passed down expands the scope of the book into something more than just a gardening guide, but into a gardening book that connects to culture and provides a sense of hope against the uncertain future.

I recommend it for anyone interested in survival on a drier, hotter world.

 

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