Iberian Honeymoon Part 1

Greetings! I’ve decided to take a break from posting fiction-in-progress, and reminisce about some of our recent adventures in Portugal and Spain. For those of you who don’t know, I recently tied the knot with my amazing wife Abi Nighthill. Months earlier we planned a honeymoon to the Iberian Peninsula. We chose Portugal to fly in and out of, because it was inexpensive, and were told by multiple people that it’s a very underappreciated vacation spot. We were both really curious about Spain as well, so we sandwiched it in.

The trip lasted around 10 days, and consisted of three major portions.

  • Lisbon (Lisboa) – Lovely capitol of Portugal.
  • Bilbao (Bilbo) – The largest city in the Basque Country of Spain.
  • Porto (Oporto) – Portugal’s second largest city, home of Port wine.

We flew in and out of Madrid, and then connected to Portugal

I’m hoping to write a few posts about each leg of our journey, and cover the highlights. My purpose here is more to recount our experiences, and not necessarily to make recommendations or paint an accurate picture of what these places are like. We tried to go off the beaten path whenever possible, and we skipped some of the usual “must-see” attractions in each place.

To start with, here are some cool things we did in and around Lisbon.

Lisboan Fado

fado

The traditional music of Portugal is called fado. It contains the “soul of the Portuguese,” embodied in the Portuguese word “saudade.” There is no direct English translation of this word, but basically it means “longing,” or the feeling that follows after one has experienced great loss. It is definitely very sad, but quite beautiful music. Traditionally it is performed with a vocalist (male or female), and two musicians on classical and Portuguese guitar.

Abi and I went to two different fado shows in Lisbon. Our first night there (after sleeping the better part of a day), we went to a hip sort of bar that attracted a younger crowd. The interior was loaded with local artwork, and even our place mats were creatively styled. Our singer for the evening was male, and his performance seemed to be geared toward easing tourists into what can be, for some, a challenging style of music. He was actually pretty funny, and didn’t fit my image of what a fado singer was. Still, it was a great introduction to the culture, and the excellent wine and Portuguese tapas didn’t hurt either.

Our second fado show was a little more traditional. The space was small, dark and intimate. We were right up front for the performance, and this time we had a female singer (a fadista). She had the shawl, the saudade vibe, and really belted those sorrowful tunes.

Sintra (Quinta da Regaleira)

At one point we took a day trip out to a neighboring town, Sintra, which is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. The trip was easy enough, since there’s a commuter rail line that connects with the city. Sintra is located west of Lisbon, in a range of hills not far from the coast. It was a popular place for the royal family of Portugal to spend their leisure time, as well as an assortment of aristocrats, rich capitalists, and so on.

There’s a lot to see in this seemingly small town. The royal family had two summer palaces here, there’s a ruined castle dating back to the time of the Arabs in Portugal, and more summer homes and palaces than anyone could see in a day. We hit the Pena Palace, and the Moorish Castle, and that managed to take up much of the morning and the afternoon. These were fascinating in their own way, but in the middle of August, they were packed with both local and foreign tourists.

But the true highlight of that visit was the strange and mysterious Quinta da Regaleira. This mansion and the surrounding gardens were bought in the 19th century by an eccentric millionaire who was obsessed with the occult. He hired an Italian architect to transform his whole estate into a bizarre work of esoteric symbolism. The grounds feature twisting pathways, carved figures from mythology and different religious traditions, underground tunnels, and an “initiation well” that has a winding staircase built into it, allowing visitors to venture underground and explore secret caves.

Abi and I were most excited about the well, and our journey through the grounds was built around the goal of finding it. Even with a map, we got hopelessly lost, and we ended up visiting nearly every strange place in the estate before we found it. After descending and wandering through dimly lit caves, we found another, unfinished well, that we could climb up and return to the surface. As she put it, we were “initiated,” then “uninitiated.”

We also found, inexplicably, a field full of cats.

Displaying P8250432.jpg

Literary Lights of Portugal

While we were visiting Portugal (and before we left), I tried to immerse myself in the local literary tradition. I didn’t know much about Portuguese literature, and I find reading the great works can add another layer of fun onto seeing the sights. I sampled Jose Saramago, probably the best known name because of his novel Blindness. Eca de Quieros is a 19th century novelist who wrote in a realist style, and his work is both insightful and sometimes really funny. Luis de Camoes is the Shakespeare or Cervantes of Portuguese letters. He wrote an epic poem in the style of the Odyssey called the Lusiads. He also had possibly the craziest life of any writer I can think of, complete with battles, doomed love affairs, and shipwrecks.

Image result for luis camoes

But the writer I chose to read throughout most of the trip was Fernando Pessoa. He is associated with the Modernist tradition, and did most of his writing in the early twentieth century. He is most famous for inventing dozens of alternate writing personas, or “heteronyms” for himself. More than simple pen names, these people he wrote as had complete fictional histories and identities, and sometimes expressed very different opinions from one another. His longest work is the “Book of Disquiet,” which I am still currently reading.

Abi and I visited the cafe that Pessoa was known to spend time at. The Cafe a Brasileira was a hot spot for artists and bohemians in the olden days. I also found out from reading signs that the word “pessoa” in Portuguese means “person,” which is kind of ironic. His name sounded like “Fernando Person,” but he was really lots of people!

Pastel de Nata

We tried some decent food in Lisbon, but my favorite culinary experience was the pastries. One kind in particular is incredibly popular all over the country, the Pastel de Nata. These are little tarts filled with sweet egg custard, baked in the oven. I must have tried these at 8 different restaurants throughout Portugal. The best ones I had were at La Brasilieira, but supposedly the best of all are located in the neighborhood of Belem, where the Pastels were invented by monks. I heard there were crazy long lines, so we avoided them. These tarts are so popular that there’s even a chain of bakery/restaurants called “I Love Nata.” I’ll have to find a place that makes them stateside…

Anyway, those are my personal highlights for Lisbon. My next post will be for Basque Country and Bilbao!

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On Loftier Notions

Moonlady

Golly! It’s been a long time since I posted. This has been a busy winter, much as expected. I’ve been scrambling to finish certain projects before deadlines, and February has also been full of memorable events. Recently, the kids at work went through February Vacation, something which I guess is particular to Massachusetts (although we’re probably not the only state that does it). My after-school program ran a day camp, so I’ve been in full overdrive mode. We put on a fun skit for the rest of our group at the end of the week, basically it was a staged slasher movie. Elementary schoolers can be very morbid these days, but who am I to deny their creative sensibilities? We designed the story collaboratively, and then I filled in the gaps as a narrator, like usual. We were able to work in sound effects, creepy lighting, and I borrowed a microphone from the computer lab, allowing me to use my best Vincent Price voice to full effect.

Some other crap that I did recently –

  • Went on a long-weekend journey to New York City, and experienced biting cold and wind, terrifying cab drivers, lewd puppets, and pretty good beer.
  • Applied to grad school for elementary teaching after several years of crippling indecision.
  • Wasted a lot of time on a brutally addictive game.
  • Started a Fifth Edition D&D campaign with fiancee and friends. It’s going really well, and I’ll have to post about it soon.

The subject of my post today is a bit random, in that it has little to do with anything else I’m currently working on, or even thinking about very much. But I’m always thinking about this to some extent: going into space. We should totally go into space. This is actually a pretty big part of my philosophy in life, and I love discussing it with both friends and strangers alike. I also want to talk about/review some of the science fiction that got me excited about the subject.

So, of course, I’m a fan of people like Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking, all of whom have said at various points that not only should we go into space because it’s cool, it would also be a really great way to survive and thrive as a species. Keep in mind that when I discuss things like philosophy and science, I’m no academic, and in my opinion I’m not even that well-read on these subjects. But what I have read has only confirmed and strengthened these beliefs. Still, I’m always eager to hear other people’s take on this stuff. since I also believe that personal philosophy should be a changing, growing thing that is continually challenged. ANYWAY, here are some key points to what I think –

(Edit: I won’t expound on these points too much. I feel like they speak for themselves, and after an earlier draft I felt that I was being too preachy and apocalyptic. While I’ve been told that I look like a crazy street preacher, it’s not how I like to think of myself)

  • It’s reasonable to have some degree of pessimism about the human race’s overall chances of success if we stay on Earth, living like we do “Success” here means our continued growth and rise to complexity, without a bunch of people dying needlessly or living terrible lives.
  • Space colonization solves a bunch of our problems: It potentially relieves population pressure, it allows us to create new homes for our species without screwing over other people or living things (which is what I usually think of when someone says “colonization”), it reduces the chances of succumbing to an extinction event (comets anyone?), it makes it easier to create new societies that are intentionally designed (we currently have a better understanding of how to make sustainable communities, so I think that’s a good thing).
  • Spreading complex life throughout the universe is also probably a good thing Freeman Dyson calls it “beauty,” to me beauty is complexity. Allowing life to flourish in different places creates more complexity, more diversity, and more ways to understand being and existing.
  • It allows us to give entropy the finger The human race is its own living archive of how people can exist. Some humans live on the bleeding edge of the hi-tech lifestyle, and some people herd reindeer, and those are both fine. What’s great is that we become better when we can exist with our past and our future at the same time. Being spread across the stars allows for enough free space and resources for people to continue existing in traditional ways, while others can pursue their own thing.

Stuff I Haven’t Figured Out Yet

There are some legit problems with these ideas that I continue to struggle with, and I thought I should list them, and maybe answer them.

  • Going into space is expensive Yep, it’s true. When I talk about this with people, I often get asked, “shouldn’t we be focusing our resources on other things, like medicine, improving the economy, international aid, etc.?” Yes, we should. But Neil pointed out that right now, in the USA, we’re only paying something like half a penny to fund NASA. And that gets us the ISS, the Mars Rovers, crews of astronauts, and so on. Even if, in a perfect world, our country wasn’t sinking ridiculous amounts of money into defense, we could still probably help a lot of people and advance the dream of space travel at the same time.
  • Living in space is implausible Right now, it kind of is. Especially living without gravity. It seems like the ISS crew is always discovering new, unpleasant things about being in space. And living on other planets, the more feasible option, has it’s own share of obstacles. Bad atmosphere, radiation, having to live in sealed environments, and so on. To me, none of this stuff is a deal breaker, although traveling in space would probably trigger a panic attack for me (I’m not a good flyer 0:43). I have faith that technology and experience will provide better answers to this, especially transhuman tech. I’m not a transhumanist (not yet anyway), but I’m on board with changing our bodies if it means we can adapt better to new environments.
  • Do we have to leave people behind? Here’s a humanist dilemma that’s ties in with lots of things I’ve already touched on. Does colonizing space, and by extension, seeking new places to live in general, mean that we have to leave behind people struggling with poverty and other issues that keep them stuck on the ground. I feel like it depends a lot on what form the means of transportation will take in the years to come. Space travel is still just a dream for the vast majority of human beings, and I wonder how people in power will bring that dream to the people, or if, in the years to come, we just won’t have dealt with our class issues yet. Elon Musk’s SpaceX currently builds the world’s cheapest space shuttles, and they give me hope for what space travel could look like in a few decades. Then again, that guy kinda sketches me out.

So, in summary, I want to go into space. Or at the very least, I want more people to go into space, eventually. If there’s a direction I think our species should be moving in, it’s up.

I’ve sort of always felt that way, but since college I’ve expanded my science-fiction reading list, and gotten generally better acquainted with the ideas behind the philosophy. Here are some good reads that I recommend first because they’re beautiful, well-written books, and second because they’re thought-provoking.

Schismatrix Plus

Strange, wonderful, and sad, this is a transhuman masterpiece by Bruce Sterling. He’s considered to be one of the big “Cyberpunk” founding fathers of the 80’s, along with William Gibson. Schismatrix (which is the novel, the “Plus” refers to the short stories set in the same universe) is about humanity living out in the wider solar system, and the life of one particular man, Abelard Lindsay. The novel follows Abelard from passionate, idealistic youth to old age as he travels between different space habitats, and gets involved in system politics. Humanity has split into different transhuman factions, divided along their chosen form of enhancement technology. Foremost among them are the “Shapers,” who prefer genetic modification, and the “Mechanists,” who favor cybernetic mods. I love this book, mainly because it’s just so weird. The future society he envisions is filled with eccentrics, fanatics, and murderous space hermits. He also manages to cram a million great ideas into one book, and still write a hell of a story with a real human core.

Red Mars

Oh, this book. It was quite a bestseller back in the day, and I remember being curious about it as a young lad in the 90’s (I didn’t actually get around to reading it until recently). It’s an epic future history of the human colonization of Mars, focusing on the “First Hundred,” the original mission crew who became the leaders of the planet’s settlement. I love the characters, I love the science (if you like geology, you’ll be all over this), and I love the politics (which I admit are not for everyone, but I would totally be a Martian pinko commie). It feels a little dense at times, but I blasted my way through it. Diaspora

This book blew my mind when I read it. Greg Egan has a reputation for being challenging, and it is well-deserved, but this story is like nothing else I’ve read before. It’s about a community of posthumans who live almost entirely as sentient computer programs. The first part of the book focuses on their interactions with other human groups inhabiting the physical world, and a mysterious natural disaster. From there it follows the characters on a journey across space, and eventually across other universes. The scope of their journey is incredible, and despite all the ruminations on computer science and physics, there is still a beautiful and very human story underneath it all. Egan really does go off on some ridiculous tangents, but it’s easy to tell where they start and end. They usually have little to do with the story, and you could probably just skip them to enjoy the rest of the story.

WHOA, long post, sorry, but I think I needed that! I feel ready to tackle some other projects now, so until next time!

Cover image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Image’s Photostream, no known copyright restrictions

Thoughts on World-building Part 1

AliceAndTheFrog

About a month ago I went to Topatocon. It was a memorable event and I hope they organize another one next year. There were lots of great panels, and interesting people in the comics and games community to get acquainted with, but one panel in particular stuck with me. That was Evan Dahm‘s excellent talk on the process of world-building. Mr. Dahm is the creator of riceboy, and many other exceptional fantasy-adventure comics. He is a talented, prolific creator, and an all-around swell guy. The discussion got me thinking about my own approach to world-building, and some of the creative people who have influenced that approach. I am, of course, a devotee of genre fiction, so most of the names that will be dropped are science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers.

Evan Dahm’s panel touched on a few major points that I felt were important. His advice on world-building was meant to be applied to any medium, but pretty much all of his examples were prose fiction, so the terminology I use will focus on that as well. I’ll try to sum them up as follows –

  • When introducing a reader to a fictional world, the writer needs to think carefully about how they will enter into it. A fictional universe is always going to feel alienating to some extent (for people like me, that’s the main attraction), so to what degree should your protagonist(s) also feel alienated? Should you go the way of Alice, Harry Potter, or the Pevensie siblings, where they start their journey in our own, recognizable world? Or should you try the more modern approach of dropping your reader right into the world, with little or no explanation of how it all works? For that approach look to George R.R. Martin, or Gene Wolfe. There’s also a kind of “middle path” as well, the way of the Great-Grandfather of Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit take place in a very detailed fantasy world, but it’s revealed in slow increments, and it begins in a very recognizable place, the Shire. Bilbo and Frodo’s home feels a lot like any peaceful, pastoral community from the real world, and that’s definitely intentional. Tolkien’s audience would likely have had a bit more trouble engaging with his massive world, if they had started in Gondor or Rohan.
  • Effective world-building doesn’t just focus on detail and consistency. There’s a tendency among a lot of writers in genre fiction to add obsessive detail in their worlds, right down to languages, architecture, and the very laws of physics. Magic in particular is something readers and writers seem to get fixated on, treating it more like a science or system of rules rather than… magic. Evan Dahm’s opinion (and I agree with him) is that while that level of detail helps for immersion and making things believable, it can result in a work of fiction that features too much exposition. A writer should know when to geek out about their fictional world, and when to tell a good story. Exposition on the subject of the world is fine, as long as it reinforces other things like characters, mood, or thematic subtext.
  • A fictional world should help the reader engage critically with the work. I was really glad that this was included in the panel. It’s my belief that every fictional work, whether done intentionally or not, has some sort of message in it. It is impossible to avoid this. Choices about characters, representation of real-world minorities and other groups of people, these all say something, and hopefully the writer keeps all of these things in mind. Dahm used Ursula Le Guin as a model for how to do this the right way. I believe genre fiction can be used for more than escapism (not that I’m totally against that), and Le Guin’s work show us that it can work even better than most styles in getting us to think about our politics, our environment, and ourselves.

SO, now for my own thoughts on the process (I have a feeling this is going to turn into a multi-part post). Evan Dahm mentioned a lot of amazing writers who have influenced him, many of whom I also enjoy, or am learning to enjoy – Ursula LeGuin, China Mieville, Italo Calvino, and Angelica Gorodischer, all of these writers are builders of fascinating and memorable worlds. If nothing else, these writers have taught me how to really capture the feel of an imaginary place. I recommend checking them out.

Mappa Mundi

So those are all important things to keep in mind. I have a few odd techniques for getting myself thinking about a new setting. I like to think that these methods are consistent with the other things I was talking about. I’ll list a few, and I’ll try to make them a little shorter –

  • Draw a bunch of maps – I love maps, I love ’em. Few things are more exciting than cracking a new book and seeing a hand-drawn map in the first few pages. The mysterious locations, the evocative names, they all create a sense of anticipation for the reader. In the words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.” As a writer, I find that making a map, even before I write anything, can be a great way to visualize locations, and also the journey that your characters will take in the story. I even started making a story-game some years back called Mappa Mundi, which was pretty much all about this idea.
  • Surround yourself with inspiring visuals – This can mean drawing a lot of your own pictures or doodles, if you like doing that (I do). Or you can amass a collection of images and pictures that really speak to you about the mood and feeling of your world. Inspiration should come from many places, not just other people’s stories. If you can describe your (prose fiction) story as a mix of visual art pieces, that’s a good thing. Oh! And music! Music is totally the way to go too! I listen to a lot of soundtracks.
  • Surround yourself with inspiring stories – Here I’m mostly talking about real-life stuff. I read the news, I occasionally read narrative non-fiction, I read a LOT of history books, and sometimes popular science. A fictional world is always going to mirror the real one to some extent, so it might as well mirror the interesting parts.
  • Try something collaborative – There’s a lot of ways to brainstorm world-building ideas with the help of friends. One of my favorites is a story-game called Microscope, which totally deserves it’s own review at some point. In that game you work with a group of people to come up with a fictional time-line for a setting. It focuses on history as a way to add detail to a world.
  • Character Bios – Write a characters life story, right up until the point you’re using them. Include small moments, family, mundane descriptions. I’ve only recently put this method to use, and I find it produces some interesting details that you might otherwise ignore. This is world-building with a focus on character development, so the weird things you create have a connection and an emotional context to the supposedly real people you are also creating. I find that writing bios also ends up creating a lot of interesting little details about everyday life, food and clothes, all that stuff.

Okay, I  should probably cap it here. Next time I’ll be listing and reviewing some of my favorite examples of great world-building from different mediums. Until then!

Images taken from the British Library Database, no known copyright restrictions

A Singular Sort of Fiction

Rubbit

Today I shall share my thoughts on epic lapine narratives, and of course more stuff on games.

Rabbits. Honestly, I don’t know if we would ascribe so much importance to these little fellows if it weren’t for the works of Richard Adams. I mean sure they have a place in our folklore and mythological cycles going back to ancient times. But before his wonderful magnum opus, I don’t think it occurred to anyone to look at a rabbit’s life story the same way we look at the Aeneid. Watership Down has always been one of my favorites, and I’m currently re-reading it for the nth time. I love the book, I love the movie, and I love the bizarre role-playing game which it inspired (more on that later).

There has been plenty of interesting criticism on the book, but it’s still hard (for me at least) to answer the underlying question of why it’s still so appealing. It’s not just that Adams expertly captures the feel of the old epics, and creates a fascinating culture and world while he’s at it. I think it has something to do with how stacked the odds always seem to be for the characters. Everyone loves underdogs, because the possibility (and even likelihood) of failure or death really raises the stakes.

Rabbits are the ultimate underdogs, they live in an incredibly hostile world, and they only have each other to depend on. There is always something out there that is smarter, faster, and stronger than them. The only edge they have on the rest of the animal kingdom is being really good at making babies, and that’s a long-term survival strategy. So whenever I see a character in Watership Down display bravery, or defy the odds, it seems so much more meaningful because you know how f#@%ed they are if things go badly for them.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. I couldn’t find a high-quality clip, but if you follow the link and start at 1:06:00 and go to 1:08:00, there you are –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FakucIq58XU

Bigwig (and the rest of them too) have nothing going for them at this point. They are surrounded, they don’t know Kehaar is on the bridge. It’s pretty hopeless, and Bigwig goes ahead and trash-talks the General anyway, just because he’s a badass. It’s foolish bravery, but bravery nonetheless. Later those two characters square off again in my other favorite scene, which I will use the book to excerpt (Bigwig, from the point of view of the Efrafrans, is referred to as Thlayli) –

Once more he climbed on the earth pile. Then he stopped. Vervain and Thistle, raising their heads to peer past him from behind, saw why. Thlayli had made his way up the run and was crouching immediately below. Blood has matted the great thatch of fur on his head, and one ear, half-severed, hung down beside his face. His breathing was slow and heavy.

“You’ll find it much harder to push me back from here, General,” he said.

With a sort of weary, dull surprise, Woundwort realized that he was afraid. He did not want to attack Thlayli again. He knew, with flinching certainty, that he was not up to it. And who was? he thought. Who could do it? No, they would have to get in by some other way, and everyone would know why.

“Thlayli,” he said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”

Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”

Again, even in a situation where it’s rabbits against rabbits, Adams puts the protagonists in a seemingly hopeless situation, and if the survival of the whole community wasn’t at stake, who knows where it would have gone. It’s not the kind of world where the heroes are invulnerable either. Bigwig almost dies in a snare, and the group loses a few rabbits during their journey.

I’ve found that when it comes to stories like this, the audience immediately becomes aware of how serious the circumstances are, regardless of how silly or strange the premise. There’s almost a comparison with zombie fiction. You’re on the edge of your seat because you know this is a world that does not care. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that there are some horrific moments that wouldn’t be out of place in the horror genre. I’ll never forget my 8th birthday party, where my friends slept over and watched Watership Down for the first time. Two of them had their moms come pick them up after I fell asleep.

Anyway, that feeling of tension and desperation carries over into some of the book’s other adaptations, namely the role-playing game. Bunnies and Burrows is one of my favorite tabletop games of all time, even though it’s now incredibly dated. Here are some interesting facts about it-

  • It’s one of the oldest tabletop RPGs, the first edition coming out only two years after the original D&D.
  • It introduced many innovative concepts, including a rudimentary skill system and martial arts.
  • Multiple “magic” systems, in the form of herbalism (combining ingredients to create a range of effects), seer abilities (spending “trance-points” to achieve supernatural effects), and empathic healing (burning fatigue and hit points to heal your friends).
  • It forced the players into making non-traditional choices for overcoming obstacles, with combat usually being a really bad idea.

I ran a short B&B campaign with some roommates/college friends, and it was a blast. Since Richard Adams clearly was inspired by ancient epics, I basically adapted the Odyssey into an adventure series with rabbits. The group played a band separated from their warren by a flood, and they had to find their way home. We had some surprisingly emotional moments, with plenty of tension, excitement, and moments for Bigwig-style heroism.

We tried to use the original, 1976 rules, but I ended up kind of re-designing it as I went. Still, they’re actually pretty simple and fun, if you ignore a lot of the ridiculous and useless sub-systems (like herbalism, which has some great ideas, and some terrible ones). There’s also a GURPS edition which is supposed to be good. Currently, Bully-Pulpit Games, the masterminds behind many classic  story-games, such as Fiasco, Durance, and Night-Witches, is working on their own rabbits RPG. It will be called The Warren, and it adapts the rules of Apocalypse World. I’m a little bitter about it, since I also had that idea a while back, but I guess it goes to show that you should act on good ideas when you have them. I have to admit they came up with a better title too, mine would have been called Bunny World.

Image courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images photostream, no known copyright restrictions