courtesy of wikimedia commons
Vase with Tulips Andries Daniels and Frans Francken the Younger

“Only he with the hobbled foot knows the beauty of running. Only he with the severed ear can appreciate what the sweetest music must sound like. Our ailments complete us. That we in our sinful souls can ever imagine charity- ‘She can’t go on for a moment. ‘We may not always be able to practice charity, but that in this world we can even imagine it at all! That act of daring requires the greatest challenge,”
Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

“…perhaps charity is the kind of beauty that we comprehend the best because we miss it the most.”
Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Do you know what it is like to be beautiful?  Continue reading “Ugly”


To Be Known

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

It is perhaps unusually appropriate that my choice for Valentine’s Day is C.S Lewis; he is, after all, my first love.

Not in a romantic sense; it would be better to say he is my first literary love–but that does not quite get at it.

He was the first writer I read that made me think, “Here; I am known, after all.”

With Lucy, I was consumed with jealousy for Susan’s beauty; with Susan, I longed to grow up and felt guilt for leaving my first love. With Edmund I shared the dark petty desires that destroyed me and felt the remorse and cleansing of forgiveness. With Peter I acknowledged my inadequacy and fear of failure.

It is in Orual, however, that I most keenly see myself. The jealousy, grief, longing, the pettiness and pretence. Her self-righteousness masked as hurt and her desire for what she thinks is justice–these are my own sins. Her selfish longing for Psyche, her self-loathing, her mask, her ugliness, within and without–I am Orual.

Now, you may be asking what all of this has to do with love. This is supposed to be a Valentine’s Day post, after all. To answer that, I will pose my own question.

Who knows your darkest secrets?

Who would you share them with?

After all, to be totally known–for the babble at the center of our souls to be revealed–that is a shameful and terrifying thing. We can never truly escape the fear that once we are truly known, those we love–and those who love us–will leave us forever. For “who could love a Beast?”

And yet–

Until we are fully known; until we have a true face, not just another mask; until are seen in our naked ugly truth, it is not we who are loved, but our mask.

Orual spends the entire book protesting her love for her sister, but learns that it was never truly her sister she loved. Orual never thinks that she can be loved, and so she hides herself behind a mask and becomes a terror and a mystery, but it is not till all of her masks are truly stripped away that Love can come to her. To be known is to be vulnerable.

But to be loved, we must be known.

Dystopia: fear of the future

DOMIN: What do you think? From a practical standpoint, what is the best kind of worker?
HELENA: The best? Probably one who —who—who is honest—and dedicated.
DOMIN: No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs.

–Rossum’s Universal Robots, Karel Capek (prologue.92)

We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

— The Giver, Lois Lowry

Destroying things is much easier than making them.

–The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

–Animal Farm, George Orwell

This month at The UncommonPlaces, we will be exploring scary stories–from Frankenstein, to monsters, to ghosts–partly in honor of Halloween and partly in honor of the real horror story that is America right now.

In a reversal of the usual flow of time, I am starting with the dystopia–the novel set in a horrifying future.

The dystopia is horrifying precisely because of how plausible it is. Not to say that all dystopias are realistic fiction–for instance, Animal Farm is about talking animals–but that all good dystopias have a very believable flow of cause and effect. Obviously, if people could erase memories, many if not all would choose to erase the bad ones (as in The Giver). And obviously something would need to be done to make sure no-one could remind anyone of those forgotten memories. And obviously from there it follows that the best way to protect people from those memories is to send the ones who remember away…

And just like that, you have fallen into a horrific world where that-which-is-wrong is taken as part of normal life.

Dystopian fiction has several recurring tropes that are worth mentioning.

First, there is the controlling class. In Animal Farm, the pigs claim they are more equal than the other animals–an obvious contradiction, but one that serves them well.

Second, there is a tendency for people to be treated as less than human.

Third, there is a tendency to pretend that it is a utopia–a perfect world.

But there can be no perfect world without removing the imperfections–and in this post-fall world, you either must redefine perfect (and that way lies horror) or you must destroy everything (and that way lies the void).

Dystopian fiction works so well because we have all dreamed of how the world would be if we controlled it, and we need to be reminded about all the ramifications of each change we make.

Found on the Internet, episode 1

So where to go next? More data-processing, I guess. Scouring recordings for slips and clues. Seeing which of my beloved crew might be a murderer. Sometimes, being the ship sucks.

–Starwalker,  by Melanie Edmonds

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an experimental starship?

I hadn’t, until I started reading Starwalker.

The world of Starwalker is narrated mostly by the ship, an Artificial Intelligence, semiomniscient within her hull–and yet it is populated by secrets. From the moment she awakens, the Starwalker is attempting to figure out who she is, why she is such an atypical AI, and what exactly are her crew’s intentions.

She carries a very diverse group within her, from the grouchy. Bones-like chief engineer Elliot, to the snappy and stressed Dr. Cirilli, to the brash and likeable SecOff Rosie, as well as many others. One of possibly the few flaws in this series is the cast, actually–it is a bit difficult to keep track of all of them, although they are all unique and identifiable.

If you enjoy AI stories and enjoy the accessibility of web series, head over and check out  Starwalker. 

With Great Power

What if Superman was evil?

And Spiderman?

What if, instead of the beautifully, brokenly human superhumans we watch on the silver screen, we lived in a world where supermen were real, and powerful, and utterly selfish?

What would you do in a world like that?

That is the question that Brandon Sanderson explores in his Steelheart Trilogy. The main character, David Charleston, accepts–and rejects–many possible answers to this question. Alongside him, an entire cast of characters grapples with it. Some–the Faithful–have hope that one day true heroes will arise, with powers used to protect and defend. Some–the Reckoners–take on the responsibility of destroying those superhumans who step too far across the line. Some believe that the superhumans are punishments for the wickedness of men. Some believe that they are simply an example of what anyone would do given enough power.

And some look for a way to fix this broken world.

Overall, I highly recommend the series, expecially if–like me–you enjoy pondering both the scientific basis for potential superpowers and the philosophical and ethical dilemmas they present.

To Boldly Go ~ Space and the American Frontier

“Science fiction is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

First, a confession: I have not read the work I am quoting. (Not from lack of trying, I will have you know. I have been on the waiting list at TWO libraries for FIVE WEEKS.) However, it was so apt for my topic of conversation today that I decided to use it anyway.

Like the majority of things American, Americans did not invent sci-fi; they simply made it their own. And what genre is more relevant to a young nation that still has a frontier than that which explores ‘the final frontier’? (If you don’t believe me about our frontier, tell me about what happens twenty miles from the interstates in the west.) Continue reading “To Boldly Go ~ Space and the American Frontier”

Three Words

“XII. Fear of Insurrection”

–Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

American literature is such a rich, diverse body of work that it is easy to overlook one of its darker chapters, one that perhaps holds some relevance for current events. We don’t often like to revisit this genre, drenched in an ugly history. But in light of Mary’s post about the poetry of the oppressed, a brief look at the slave narrative seems in order.

There are many slave narratives in our written literature, many more woven only on the tongues of those who lived those narratives. Within our recorded literature, slave narratives can be autobiographical or not, fictional or entirely true. The most famous novel in this genre is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most Americans have probably read about Uncle Tom, or at least been assigned to read about him.

Why not talk about Uncle Tom? Simple. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by a white woman as a fictional piece of propaganda for the abolition movement. It’s a powerful story, masterfully written. But it is, if you will, a secondary source. Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t write from her own experience. All well and good in fiction. Nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what I want to write about.

I want to get into the grittiness of these narratives. I want to explore a true story, one that can’t be brushed off as fiction or exaggerated. Jacobs and the friend who edited her work both attest to the veracity of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs goes to great pains to reassure her reader of the truth of her account throughout the narrative. There is a grim reality to Incidents that is much easier to avoid in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having reread Incidents recently, I found nothing so powerful as this chapter heading I’ve quoted above. There are some beautiful quotes. Jacobs is a raw, honest writer. But what really caught my eye was chapter 12 as a whole and with its title. It’s such an understated title: “Fear of Insurrection.” Three words. But the scene they sum up is such a vivid picture that I couldn’t find just one sentence to quote. The title must suffice.

Think back, will you, to the events of the past couple years. Can you remember the protests? Do you see them still? Do you remember the streets of St. Louis on fire? Can you see the anguish in the faces of mothers who had just buried their boys?

No, you’re right. This isn’t slavery. America has changed. But as we said on Tuesday, “America has not yet been America yet.” There are still dark nights ruled by fear. Fear of the Other. Fear of injustice. Fear of the system. Fear of the darkness.

Perhaps we should not say “united we stand.” Rather, in honesty, we might better echo Jacobs’ words: “fear of insurrection.” But let our present not be our future. Which three words will you be known by?

On the Handwriting of My Younger Self

“There is something at the same time both embarrassing and heartwarming about seeing your handwriting from when you were fifteen.”

–Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

If I’m remembering correctly, we’ve featured Mr. Gaiman on this blog before. However, given his brilliance as a writer, I think it doesn’t hurt to visit another of his works. Gaiman’s Trigger Warning is a rich collection of humor and terror and profundity. There’s everything from poetry to flash fiction to an introduction that’s actually worth the read. And if that’s not enough to interest you, there’s a Doctor Who story. I’ll just step aside for a moment and let the fandom stampede by. Continue reading “On the Handwriting of My Younger Self”

Between the Boring and the Horrific lies Adventure

“Have you ever got everything you ever wanted? And then realized it wasn’t what you wanted at all? I thought I wanted this,” said Richard. “I thought I wanted a nice normal life. I mean, maybe I am crazy. I mean, maybe. But if this is all there is, then I don’t want to be sane. You know?”

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Neverwhere opens on the most boring protagonist imaginable. He works in finance in an office in London. He is entirely unromantic. He got engaged to a woman who chose him for his malleability. His problems are the sort of problems that only qualify as disasters in sitcoms. He is, on the whole, entirely normal. This is first reason I give this book my recommendation. Continue reading “Between the Boring and the Horrific lies Adventure”

On the Nature of Love

“So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’

‘Love,’ he explained.

She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said, flatly.”
Neil Gaiman, Stardust

Audiobooks are a beautiful thing, when done properly. I recently finished listening to Stardust, read by the author (who refuses to do that stupid thing that male readers do to female voices where they make them all identical, high pitched, and petulant.) I highly recommend it both as fiction in and of itself and as an audiobook, to spice up those dull commutes that seem to be an unavoidable aspect of adulthood.

Some spoilers under the cut. Continue reading “On the Nature of Love”