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Fantastic History #61: The Historical Wonder Woman by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I’m getting ready to move all of my fall classes online, and starting in August, I’m teaching a course called American Dreams. In my attempts to make pop culture a little more literary, and make literature a little more attractive to my students, I have opted to include a couple of graphic novels in the course. One of the novels is New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, largely because I am drawn to the portrayal of Wonder Woman in the novel. Cooke pares away a lot of the soft Western feminization of the character and truly gets down to a character, who, when push comes to shove, reacts very much like an Amazon warrior.

I haven’t written any academic papers on Wonder Woman, let’s be clear about that. But that said, Wonder Woman was my first comic book hero. My parents brought me home a giant Wonder Woman comic from the grocery store when I was about 8. I kept hoping through my early childhood for anything Wonder Woman. I read ridiculous stories about how she got her shoes, her earrings, how she mastered kanga riding and won a tournament in a mask to come to man’s world to fight in the war against her mother’s wishes. I read a lot of really dopey portrayals of Wonder Woman as she was jealous of her Diana Prince alter ego and puzzled how to get Steve Trevor to marry her. I was saddened by the Kathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman pilot, and ecstatic as Lynda Carter brought the character to life in a way an 11-year-old could really get behind.

I can go on and on in this vein, talking about the George Perez reboot which started strong and finished weak, or gush about Gal Gadot and mourn how Covid-19 is keeping us from seeing Patty Jenkins’ newest installment in the legitimization of both DC heroes and the mighty Amazon on the big screen. As a costumer, I have dressed as Wonder Woman not once, but twice, both traditional and vintage. And recently, I was even Wonder Woman’s mom.

As I have been wrapping my teacher brain about how to present the superheroes of New Frontier to my student, my mind goes back to the interesting history and origins of many of these heroes. I don’t know how many of you have read about Wonder Woman, but if you’ve read any introductory texts about her, say The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, you’ll know all about Marston’s ideas of how a woman superhero would fight for peace and love, rather than dominance. Marston had some interesting ideas about submission and bondage, and…well, all sorts of things, but what happened as Marston created his heroine was that Wonder Woman became a heroine unlike the other heroes of her time. After Marston was done with the book, Wonder Woman was essentially made to conform to a more feminine standard after the war. Wonder Woman: The Complete History traces the heroine through her “housewification” of the 50s, her transformation to groovy martial artist (think Emma Peel) in the 60s, and back to the reclamation of her legacy as a hero in the 70s. Like many comics characters, Wonder Woman has reflected the times in which she was written, as well as the cultural mores surrounding women. She has always been problematic in a world which, unlike Marston’s original conceptualization, was not willing to accept an unapologetically strong woman.

In my course, I’m going to be talking about all of the heroes in Cooke’s New Frontier, but Wonder Woman will especially attract some notice, because she is a character in this book, set in the early 60s, that does NOT conform to the Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat standard. Her worldview is very different than many of the characters, and it seems to me that young men and women need to be thinking about what history says about their gender roles, specifically as we move forward into a brave new pandemic world, with many changes about assumptions from the past to be considered. I didn’t know this would be the case when I picked New Frontier, but often scholarly inspiration can be fortuitous.

And Wonder Woman herself? We’ve already seen some ground gained as the mighty Amazon has been brought to the screen in Greek armor, rather than the Playboy bunny suit her armor evolved into. We’ve seen her muscles swell, and her strength and compassion return. If American society can return Wonder Woman to an ideal of strength, of standing against war, of supporting mankind’s better sense of morality, AND if Wonder Woman is indicative of the shifts of our culture, perhaps our world isn’t as bleak as it currently seems.

Fantastic History #60: Being Right Versus Being True by Kurt Wilcken

Characters are funny things. I think just about any writer will tell you that there have been times when a character took on a life of his own and refused to do the things the writer planned. As the character develops, his personality develops until when the writer gets to the point where Harriet is supposed to marry Peter, the writer realizes that there is no way in hell Harriet would do such a thing. And then she has to write a half dozen more novels worth of character development to get them both down the aisle.

It’s rewarding when this happens, because it means that the character has become more like a real person than simply a cardboard puppet for the author to manipulate; and that means that the character and the things that happen to him are more likely to be meaningful to the reader.

When my characters are obstinate and refuse to follow my elegantly constructed plots, I generally let them have their head and adjust my story accordingly. I’ve got plenty of practice doing this running RPG’s with my wife.

But sometimes I come across a related problem. What do you do when your character has opinions and beliefs that differ greatly from your own?

Usually it’s not that big a deal. It’s a common situation, after all. Imagining what it would be like to be a person other than yourself is pretty much a prerequisite for being any kind of a writer, especially one who is writing about a different historical period. As the fellow once said, the Past is another country; they do things differently there. If a character of mine has different political views or religious beliefs or moral outlook than my own, we can agree to disagree for the space of the story.

I will admit that sometimes I am not above mocking such a character and use my prerogative as author to poke fun at his misconceptions. The biggest temptation of all is to “convert” the characters. Robert Heinlein once said that there were only three basic plots in fiction, one of which being “The Man Who Learned Better.” Growth of understanding is what character development is all about and what better way to develop the character than to have the story be about how the character learns that his former opinions were wrong and comes around to the author’s way of thinking?

Except… when you put it that way… Gee, that sounds awfully egotistical. And worse yet, it reduces the character back to being the cardboard puppet again, dancing for the author’s amusement.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but to do it right, the writer needs to show the character’s conversion developing naturally out of the character.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in Spiritualism, and once wrote a story in which his character the bombastic Professor Challenger has a dramatic encounter with the ghost of a former assistant which converts him to a belief in the afterlife. Doyle wrote no such story about Sherlock Holmes, in which the Great Detective renounces his skepticism about the supernatural. It would have out of character for him; it would have seemed contrived; it would have seemed false.

I was once in a similar situation many years ago. I was playing a character in a Victorian Era monster hunting game named J. Hamish Broadstead who was an arch-skeptic. He completely rejected the supernatural and had made it his life’s mission to debunk fraudulent mediums. He was your stereotypical late-Victorian scientific materialist — come to think of it, I borrowed a bit of Professor Challenger for him — and I admit, I played him as a pompous buffoon. After all, since there really were vampires and ghosts and such creatures in the campaign, his obstinate refusal to see this was a running gag.

I decided to draw a comic book “origin story” for my skeptic, explaining how he became so obsessive about debunking the supernatural. I framed it as a dream in which he is guided through his past by another of the characters, who was loosely based on the Phantom Stranger. ( “This isn’t going to be like that wretched Dickens Christmas story, is it?” “I’m afraid so, Professor.” “Can’t stand Dickens. Always taking legitimate social concerns and sentimentalizing them.”)

So, I had Broadstead’s spirit guide show him selected scenes from his youth culminating in an incident where as a young man he exposes a fraudulent medium at a seance and the shock of the revelation causes his sickly, invalid sister to fall into a swoon. She dies shortly afterwards, and Broadstead blames the charlatan. Secretly, though, he harbors guilt at the thought that had he not unmasked the fraud, his sister might still be alive.

At that point in the story, I realized I needed to come up with some kind of resolution. There had to be some reason for Broadstead to relive his tragic past. I needed Broadstead to find Redemption.

Except…

I couldn’t buy it. It just didn’t seem right for Broadstead. Given his background and his personality, I could not picture him having a religious experience; it would not ring true. Even if he ever did have such an experience, he would almost certainly interpret it in purely materialistic terms. And in any case, since I framed the story as a dream, he would likely discount the whole thing when he woke up anyway.

So how would I respect Broadstead’s character without seeming to validate a world-view I disagree with? How can I be right and stay true at the same time?

In this particular story, I had the spirit guide offer Broadstead the chance to speak with the ghost of his sister and resolve their issues. Her ghost appears behind him, arms outstretched and beckoning to him. But Broadstead banishes her with a grumpy “Poppycock!” without ever seeing she was there. He doesn’t need anybody’s help and he is perfectly capable of dealing with his own guilt issues by himself, thank you. Besides, if there is an afterlife — which he does not for a moment concede — then his sister certainly has better things to do than to come back here. To the end, Broadstead remains proud and self-sufficient and true to his personal philosophy and code. And yet… his sister was there, if only he would see her. And the story ends with him standing quietly by her grave. Praying? Pondering? I left it for the reader to decide.

I’m not exactly sure if I succeeded in striking the balance I wanted in that story. I thought it worked pretty well at the time, and had some nice bits of dialogue; but in summarizing the plot, it seems rather weak. Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I found myself in a similar situation with my story “Spitting at the Sun” in which an orkish shaman undergoes a crisis of faith when his world changes and a new religion arises to challenge his own. Working out his traditional beliefs was a fun exercise in world-building. The difficult part came when I needed to have my orc resolve this crisis and reconcile his beliefs to the new situation.

No, I didn’t make him a Lutheran. A Lutheran orc might be interesting; but he wouldn’t fit in this story. I wanted to be true to the character. Anything less would come off as phony. I had to find what aspects of my own beliefs my orc would comprehend and be open to, so that when he comes to a deeper understanding of things, it flows and develops from who he is and what he knows. Having him experience this satori in the middle of a fight helped. He is an orc, after all.

It can be a delicate balance. The character has to have enough in common with the audience that the reader can relate to and understand him, but he also needs to be different enough to be believably part of another world with a different society, different attitudes and different culture. If the writer manages to portray the character well, not only does the character gain a deeper understanding of his world, perhaps the reader does as well.

*****

In his secret identity, Kurt Wilcken is a ninja cartoonist. He has written and drawn stories for Antarctic Press and Radio Comix and his current webcomic, a Pulp-Era adventure titled Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, appears on his website. He also blogs occasionally on subjects ranging from comic books to obscure Bible stories. You can find his story about the orkish shaman, “Spitting at the Sun”, in the fantasy anthology Hunt the Winterlands.

Fantastic History #59: Beer City by Dawn Vogel

Author Harry E. Chrisman claims that when it comes to the history of the American West, “If [the information] is easy to obtain, then it is ‘old hat’ and has probably been published a dozen times before.” Nonetheless, the history of the American West is filled with colorful characters and stories that have not been told as often as some others.

As Americans filled in the vast lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, they organized into territories as a form of government, preparatory to becoming states. But the forms of government in these territories ranged from ordered to lawless, and often fell somewhere in between. The piece of land that would ultimately become the Oklahoma Panhandle started out as a part of Texas. However, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the later Compromise of 1850, the portion of Texas that fell north of the 36°30′ latitude was ceded and became known as the “Public Land Strip.” Since the southern borders of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were set at the 37th latitude, in 1854, there was a strip of land, approximately 34 miles north-south and 170 miles west-east that was not a part of any territory. “No Man’s Land,” as it was known, was in a prime location with regards to Kansas, which had prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol. It was easy to travel across the southern boundary of Kansas and visit a little town called Beer City.

“Town” is a generous description for the settlement. It was mostly tents, with a few actual buildings: “There were eight to ten saloons, a number of gambling houses and several bawdy houses to represent the business Industries of the Strip city.” The Yellow Snake Saloon, run by “Pussy Cat” Nell Jones, was one of those buildings, and likely served as not only a saloon, but also a gambling house and a bawdy house.

Without much in the way of organized law and order, the town had a self-appointed sheriff, Amos (or Lewis) “Brushy” Bush. According to most accounts of the town, he also ran a protection racket, requiring local businesses to pay him money in order for them to make use of his services, whether they were wanted or not. According to Chrisman, “He ruled with sawed off shotgun and six-shooters…. His ‘protection’ came high, but Beer Citizens accepted it—at least for a while.”

Sometime in the late 1880s, a 4th of July celebration in Beer City included a wrestling match and a masked ball. Residents of Beer City placed bets on one or the other of the combatants in the wrestling match, through a man named Fred Oschner. However, Brushy Bush “horned in at the last minute to hold most of the stakes, for 5 percent!” When Pussy Cat Jones found out and registered her displeasure, Brushy Bush pistol whipped her for her temerity.

Pussy Cat Jones then waited a week to enact her revenge. According to Chrisman, “Pussy Cat sat in the upstairs room of her house and saw Brushy Bush passing along the street just below her. Quickly seizing her trustworthy double barrel shotgun loaded with Blue Whistlers, those deadly little steel balls about an eighth of an inch in diameter, she poked the snout of her gun out the window and gave Brushy both barrels in the back of the neck.”

Perhaps if that had been the end of it, the fate of Brushy Bush would have been fairly cut and dried—shot in the back by a woman he had wronged. “But now the other folks of Beer City took up the battle and the crack of rifle and shotgun fire made the street sound like Gettysburg. When one group would run out of ammunition, another would commence firing into Bush’s inert form. When they finally picked his bloody body out of the street and took it out onto the prairie for burial, there was not a whole bone in his body.” Even the newspapers commented on the amount of lead that had been pumped into Brushy Bush. One account gave the numbers as “eight bullets and twenty-three shot,” while another claimed “seventy-four Winchester and pistol shots were fired into Bush’s body.”

Despite how many times Bush had been shot, the authorities did eventually find someone to blame for the murder: John Brennan. “A Paris, Texas, dispatch dated July 3, 1889, says: John Brennan, a white man, had an examination before U. S. Commissioner Kirkpatrick today for the murder of Amos Bush, also white, at Beer City, No Man’s Land, last May, and was committed without bail to await the action of the federal grand jury. Bush was from Dodge City, and was killed by a vigilance committee, one of which was Brennan.”

Clearly, though, it seems impossible for Brennan to have fired all those shots, so why he alone took the blame for the murder of Bush is unclear. At least some speculation on the subject suggests that the townspeople all agreed to fire on Bush to muddy up the evidence of an actual killing shot, assuming they could not all be blamed for Bush’s death.

Another issue with the accounts is that they do not agree—the newspaper article about Brennan’s examination mentions that Bush was murdered in May of 1889, which does not square with Chrisman’s report of it taking place after a 4th of July celebration. Additionally, another newspaper article mentions “Bush was proprietor of a saloon in the city and at the election was defeated for mayor,” and then began rounding up citizens of Beer City for a “bone yard” he planned to create. In this account, “A meeting was held and Bush was ordered to keep quiet or leave town, but he refused to do either,” so the residents banded together to kill him.

Though it is difficult to match up the details of the contemporary newspaper articles and Chrisman’s account, which does not offer any citation, it certainly seems likely that Brushy Bush was not a popular figure in Beer City. Whether he was a lawful man unfairly targeted by unlawful citizens who preferred their town not be policed, a tyrant who picked on the wrong woman, or a belligerent drunk unwilling to accept his loss of the mayoral race, it does seem clear that his murder cannot be pinned on any one individual with any certainty, and thus remains a subject of speculation in the history of the American West.

***
Sources include

“Arrested for Murder,” Hugoton Hermes, June 21, 1889, transcribed online at http://oklahombres.org/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5176036794/m/66510794641

Derrick Ho, “Stories of the Ages: Beer City,” The Oklahoman, accessed January 13, 2017, http://ndepth.newsok.com/beer-city/

Harry E. Chrisman, Lost Tales of the Cimarron (Denver: Sage Books, 1961)

“Oklahoma Panhandle,” Wikipedia.com, accessed February 13, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_Panhandle

“Oklahoma Panhandle: Badmen in No Man’s Land,” History.net, June 12, 2006, http://www.historynet.com/oklahoma-panhandle-badmen-in-no-mans-land.htm

Woodsdale Sentinel, August 2, 1889, transcribed online at http://oklahombres.org/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5176036794/m/66510794641

***

Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #58: When the Ordinary is a Fantasy by Kate Heartfield

The Black Death hit Florence hard. At least half the city’s population died, and maybe more.

By 1350, the plague had burned itself out. Many of the city’s grand houses sat empty, a temptation to anyone who would take the risk of touching the furnishings. Giovanni Boccaccio was already writing what history came to regard as his great work, a collection of bawdy or clever stories told with perfect turns of phrase and deftly drawn characters.

It’s tempting to think of classic texts as though they were archival records, missives from the past. But when Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, I doubt he had us in mind. It’s a little difficult to say for sure who, exactly, he had in mind. In his introduction, he says he wrote it as a comfort for ladies to ease their suffering – but the suffering he’s talking about is the suffering of being in love! The first chapter is a description of the plague’s effects on Florence, the ditches full of corpses with no one to mourn them. But Boccaccio reassures his putative female audience that all the unpleasant parts will be out of the way at the beginning, that reading the book will be like climbing a mountain and emerging onto to a beautiful plain.

In that notional meadow, his readers come upon a group of fictional storytellers. The conceit is that these characters have left plague-ridden Florence for the countryside, where they decide to wait out their apocalypse by telling each other stories. It was just barely historical fiction when Boccaccio was writing it in his half-empty city; it would be like someone in 2022 writing a novel set in the current pandemic.

What strikes me, as a historical fantasy writer re-reading the Decameron now, is that there’s not a lot of fantasy in it. There’s the occasional ghost, mythological milieu or strange happening, but the stories are mostly about ordinary people tricking each other, having affairs, showing up hypocrisy, learning life lessons.

In fact, the realism of the stories told by the Decameron’s somewhat allegorical frame characters has led many people to see it as a sort of snapshot of the transition to the Renaissance. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2013: “I see the Decameron as a picture, with the ten elegant Florentines, in their silk gowns and embroidered doublets, joining hands and dancing their lovely circle dance, the carola. And in the middle of the circle are monks and merchants and painters and prostitutes eating dinner and having sex and kicking one another into ditches. In other words, we see the Renaissance embraced by the Middle Ages, like a planet orbited by its moons.”

Dividing anything into the Renaissance and the Middle Ages is always fraught, and that debate doesn’t really concern me here. But the dogged ordinariness of the stories does. After all, in our own time, we’ve been told over and over again that the literature of comfort and escape is fantasy. Some, like Tolkien, have defended the “escape” function of what he called “fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” More often, though, it’s dismissive or derisive, meant to signal that what is escapist is not challenging or thought-provoking or elevating, that it merely allows us to forget our troubles for a while, like a glass of wine.

The Decameron, which long ago joined the ranks of Serious Art, was written with the express purpose of allowing women to forget their troubles. It is literally, avowedly, escapist fiction, anchored in the very disaster his readers had just survived: the reader is asked to imagine escaping that disaster and going to an idyllic landscape, where they have ten days to remember life in all its pain and hilarity: life without the plague.

How many times have you heard or read someone say, over the last few months, that all of this feels unreal, that we’re living in a science fiction novel? Such moments remind us that all fiction has an escapist function – or, to get away from the derogatory, let’s call it a transportive, function. Writers struggling to write “contemporary” stories at the moment, anchored in some floating nebulous “now”, are having to confront the axiom that all fiction is either historical or science fiction. It’s just easier to kid ourselves about that when there isn’t a pandemic happening. By the time any novel written during this pandemic is published, it will imagine a world that is gone, or a world that the writer can’t know yet. Either choice will transport the reader, either to the past, or to a fossilized conception of the future. All fiction moves us from one room into another.

Perhaps the novelist who writes the escapist fiction of 2022 will do as Boccaccio did and write about ordinary people having affairs and not worrying about anything else, and it will seem like a throwback to a more innocent time. Edith Wharton wrote in her memoir about the end of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic that “before I could deal objectively with the stored up emotions of those years, I had to get away from the present altogether, and though I began ‘A Son at the Front’ in 1917 it was not finished until four years later. Meanwhile I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and I wrote ‘The Age of Innocence.’” That novel was set in the 1870s and published in 1920, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve had a story stub sitting in my ideas folder for a while, with a setting inspired by The Age of Innocence, set in New York in the 1870s, with magicians. It seemed somehow fitting that that story should be my contribution for The New Decameron Project, a wonder conceived of by Maya Chhabra, and organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton and Lauren Schiller. So I finished it up, titled it “A Hansom Cab Outside the Liberty Street Ferry Terminal” and it was published on May 4. All the stories in The New Decameron Project, including the charming frame narrative by Jo Walton, are free to read, but Patreon subscribers support payments for the authors and Cittadini del Mondo, a charity running a library and clinic for refugees in Rome.

Personally, I want all my stories to be an escape from the reader’s current frame of mind, so that they return from the experience changed, even if that change is only one of mood. Because the escape in fiction is always a temporary one, and what it’s really doing is guiding our return, to the city that needs rebuilding, to the life that is to come.

*

Kate Heartfield writes science fiction and fantasy, including the Aurora-winning novel Armed in Her Fashion and the Nebula-shortlisted novella Alice Payne Arrives, along with dozens of stories. She is the author of The Road to Canterbury and The Magician’s Workshop, both of which were shortlisted for the Nebula in game writing. Her next novel is The Embroidered Book, a historical fantasy coming in 2021. A former journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Fantastic History #57: Rehumanizing Chattel Slaves by Abby Goldsmith

Chattel slavery ranks high among humanity’s worst evils.

It overlaps with institutionalized torture and genocide, which make it difficult to explore through the lens of fantasy fiction. If you misrepresent chattel slavery, you are compounding injustice and spreading harmful ignorance. If you treat it lightly or gloss over it, you are misrepresenting it. And since the descendants of American slaves make up a significant portion of the reading public, any treatment of it in fiction deserves nuance and sensitivity, and a lot of research.

One of the defining features of American slavery was dehumanization. American slaves were considered a subspecies of humankind, not just a lower social class. That belief justified the treatment of chattel slaves as animals, to be bred, bought, and sold without regard for familial bonds, and without regard for the loyalties of love and friendship. To enforce this unnatural arrangement, armed violence against unarmed slaves was acceptable and commonplace.

Despite the vast gulf between masters and slaves, however, there was no erasing their shared humanity. Mixed families were undeniable. Sometimes a master owned his own children. Modern genetic tests, as well as the wide range of skin tones among descendants of American slaves, are evidence of the lie which dehumanization relied upon. As much as slave owners wanted to believe that their slaves were unlike themselves, they were wrong.

I wondered how much worse it might have been if mixing was impossible.

What if the schism between masters and slaves was based on a more substantial pretext than skin color? What if masters and slaves were, literally, two different species?

In my series, I cast the entire human race as chattel slaves. Planet Earth is like interior Africa at the start of the colonial era, isolated from a bustling galactic civilization. The rulers of the galaxy are distantly related to humankind, as well as to other “primitives.” But they consider humankind to be an inferior subspecies of themselves.

The Torth make the same mistake which white slave traders made, and the same mistake the Nazis made. They fall for the seductive ideology that they are members of an elite, superior race. The Torth see themselves as intrinsically more wholesome and more mentally advanced than their human targets. After all, the Torth wield total power as the only legal citizens of galactic civilization. They are far more technologically advanced than humankind. They rule planets. hey dominate interstellar travel. They have conquered and enslaved multiple alien civilizations. All the power they’ve gained makes it hard for anyone to question their morality, or their fitness to rule.

I needed the Torth to look indistinguishable from humans. They consider humanity to be a lesser subspecies of themselves, rather than alien beasts, and I wanted their reason for dehumanizing humans to be something more substantial than appearance. After all, visible traits are a flimsy excuse for dehumanization. I wanted my galactic-ruling civilization to seem smarter than that.

What if their claim to superiority is based on a bioengineered, inherited ability which they have made impossible for “lesser” species to inherit?

The Torth don’t need an internet because their minds are interconnected in a telepathic web that spans the galaxy. Like white slave-owners in the American South, who sent their sons to universities and who gave their daughters private tutors, but who did not knowingly share books or newspapers or literacy with slaves, the Torth forbid the sharing of knowledge with slaves.

Only Torth learn how to read glyphs. Only Torth learn how to pilot a flying transport, or how to navigate a streamship through a wormhole to another solar system. Slaves learn nothing except how to polish floors or harvest grains.

Knowledge is power. That fact was perhaps never more poignantly proven than during slavery in the United States. An educated slave was a direct, existential challenge to the notion that slaves were an inferior subspecies. Therefore, it was forbidden to teach literacy to slaves. If a slave could read, then that slave might read a newspaper and learn which runaways were being hunted, and by whom. They might give warning to their fellow slaves about impending battles or uprisings. They might communicate secret directions to an underground railroad.

They might gain a voice which could not be ignored.

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and others who escaped slavery wrote and orated powerfully about their personal experiences. These people were among the few slaves who defiantly learned literacy against the wishes of their owners. They were lucky enough to be positioned for a permanent escape to freedom. And once they gained freedom, they were brave enough to challenge the vested interests that ruled the civilization they lived in.

I think anyone who reads their works can only admire them. In gaining global attention, these former slaves shone an inescapable spotlight on what must be happening to a vast population in the American South who were unable to advocate for themselves.

I wanted to bring some of that defiant heroism into my series.

Torth collectively share knowledge with each other. The Megacosm is the backbone of their galactic civilization; something like a super-charged internet. It is the equivalent of books and newspapers during the era of American slavery. Torth regard humanity’s internet as a feeble, slow, primitive version of the mental network which they’ve collectively shared for a thousand generations, and which only they can access. Any Torth in the galaxy can instantly communicate with any other Torth. hey hide no secrets from each other. They don’t use spoken language.

In the same way that slave owners in early America assumed that slaves were incapable of erudition, the Torth assume that enslaved subspecies, such as humankind, are naturally incapable of using the Megacosm.

But if a reader is paying close attention, they might guess at an undercurrent in Torth society; a fear that they might be wrong. After all, why have the Torth outlawed the science of bioengineering?

They want to preclude any possibility of another species gaining telepathic abilities, or developing a communications network that might rival the Megacosm.

In my series, a group of slaves gain a window into the Megacosm through a Torth who goes renegade. Thomas rejects the privileges and benefits of being a slave owner. Having been raised by humans on Earth, Thomas has sympathy for his enslaved human foster family. He risks his life to set them free, and together, they escape Torth society and join an underground hideout full of runaway slaves.

Thomas provides the former slaves with education which is supposed to be meant only for Torth. Through his efforts, the former slaves begin to make use of super-weapons and spaceships. As knowledge spreads through the former slaves and rebels, they innovate on their own.

They found a rebel nation which energetically defies Torth laws against bioengineering and other sciences. One of their biggest gains is a “telepathy gas” which empowers former slaves to jack into the Megacosm.

The rebel nation is a melting pot of cultures, similar to how the slaves of the colonial United States were a mix of tribal nations. Their shared experience as slaves gives them a common language. This facilitates creativity, and their new forms of art and innovations even appeal to the stuffy Torth.

Soon there are secret Torth renegades who want to join the rebel nation. It is a slow trickle at first, since surveillance is a key component of the Megacosm. Torth are constantly monitored by their own peers. By choosing to join former slaves, renegade Torth must give up the Megacosm. Not only do they lose their edge in knowledge, but they also abandon their privileges as slave masters. And they must risk death to escape.

The risks are worth it to some renegade Torth. By the end of my series, the risks are worth it to many, as the Torth civilization begins to collapse from its own rotten values. They are no longer able to maintain the delusion of their innate superiority.

***

Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, a Writer’s Digest Books anthology, and other venues. She’s an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she received a personal critique from best-selling author George R.R. Martin. She’s also enjoyed dinners with best-selling authors Hugh Howey, Kevin J. Anderson, and Robert Jordan.

A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast from her home in Texas.

Fantastic History #56: What is Vaudeville? by Caroline Stevermer

“It’s French, therefore it is classy.”
–Frank Cullen, historian of vaudeville and variety theater, in “Stateside, part one,” an episode of the BBC Radio program “Palaces of Pleasure.”

Since Tor Books has just published my fantasy novel, The Glass Magician, which is set in vaudeville in 1905, in a New York City not our own, I’ve been asked to talk a bit about researching vaudeville for historical fantasy.

I want to discuss two questions. What is vaudeville? How is researching historical fantasy different from researching fantasy in general?

Vaudeville, my dictionary tells me, is “a stage show consisting of mixed specialty acts, including songs, dances, comic skits, acrobatic performances, etc.”

Historians don’t agree on the origin of the term. Here’s a partial transcription of historian Frank Cullen’s hypothesis:
[After the U.S. Civil War] “We had to get rid of disease, pernicious social conditions, and parallel to that, in the west, people came to town on weekends to raise hell. And as men began to settle there and prosper, they brought their families. Then came churches. The pressure was on. Now, the smart entrepreneur looked at this and said, ‘Okay I’ve got gambling, prostitution, booze, and entertainment. Entertainment is not causing me any trouble, and I can get away with the booze.’ So the next level after that was to establish themselves as something classy. Entrepreneurs went over to Europe and they saw ‘vaudeville’ on a marquee and they thought ‘That is a classy name! It’s French, therefore it is classy.’ And that’s my theory of the eventual but wholesale adoption of the term vaudeville in place of the benighted term variety.”

My protagonist is a young woman stage magician performing on the vaudeville circuit. In 1905, vaudeville was respectable family entertainment, suitable for women and children. So, New York City in 1905, stage magic in general and at the time, life in vaudeville, and travel from city to city on the vaudeville circuit — these were all research topics I tackled when I began this project. I used primary sources, secondary scholarship, and everything Penn and Teller had on Netflix at the time.

As I am writing the novel’s sequel, set in California in 1906, I’m still interested in those research topics. I am still working with primary sources and secondary scholarship. But sometimes I get lucky.

While writing this blog post, I had the chance to listen to three episodes of the “Palace of Pleasure” radio series, hosted by Geoffrey Wheeler, available on BBC Radio’s iPlayer. Most episodes of this radio program concern the history of music hall entertainment in the U.K. or Europe, but there are three “Stateside” episodes, which address vaudeville and variety entertainment in the United States. My transcription of part of Frank Cullen’s contributions is from the first those three episodes.

It’s pure luck that iPlayer granted me access to those episodes at this time. If you’re interested in researching vaudeville, I hope you’re able to access them when you read this blog post, because the BBC program archive is gigantic and things cycle in and out of iPlayer all the time.

How is researching historical fantasy different from researching fantasy in general?

Most of historical fantasy research is no different from non-fiction research. I prefer primary sources when I can get them. Firsthand accounts bring the setting to life for me. Where possible, I like to read newspapers or magazines published at the time and in the place I’m concerned with. As I’m a visual person, visual media help me enormously. (I particularly recommend shorpy.com as an online resource for period photographs.) Recordings are as evocative. “Palace of Pleasure: Stateside” contains a wonderful sampler of music as well as interviews with performers who worked in vaudeville at the beginning of their career.

When doing research for historical fantasy, however, one often comes across evocative facts that open doors to possibility in the story or close them off. In researching The Glass Magician, I came across the name of a business I found so evocative that I used it in almost every draft of the novel. It sounded right. It was right — a business of that name existed at the right place in the right time period. However, that business still exists to the present day. Using the name of the business, while authentic, would risk jerking a reader who knew the business in a real-world context out of the story. (Using the name of an actual business would probably be foolish on more practical levels, but that’s the one that concerned me.)

Still, I was in love with that particular business. It served an intrinsic role in the story. So I kept the business, but changed the name. I don’t like the invented name half as well as the real name. But I’ve learned to respect that internal process so mysterious to me, which determines what research has to be in the novel and what research can be left out.

I respect the mystery of research. But I also respect the luck of research. Finding the right fact at the right time is often pure serendipity. But if I’m not looking, I will never notice when I find it.

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Caroline Stevermer writes fantasy novels and shelters in place in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Fantastic History #55: It’s Alive! by Catherine Schaff-Stump

In April, I am debuting a very different series than my usual dark Gothic fare. Abigail Rath Versus Bloodsucking Fiends, the intrepid monster hunting adventures of Abby Rath and her best friend Vince Cooper, is the start of a series set in contemporary(ish) Los Angeles. It wouldn’t seem like I needed to do historical research for this kind of book, but I had to learn a lot about Hollywood B-movies, horror actor culture, and the realm of a certain kind of horror film.

Where to start? I was inspired to write about Abby and her adventures largely because I live with a horror fan. My husband Bryon has entire shelves in his den devoted to historical horror books and films. Make no mistake–he’s not a slasher fan. He has no time for Michael Myers. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Myers (okay, there is a lot wrong with Michael Myers), but what Bryon likes is horror that’s a bit noir, or a bit creepy, or even a bit campy (okay, a lot campy, if you take into account some of the Hammer Studios and Roger Corman Poe films he watches). There was something about those films and the spirit with which they were made that has not been recaptured in current horror cinema, although I think Sam Raimi recaptured some of it in his Deadite films.

In my book, Abby Rath’s father is Reginald Rath, vampire killer, a direct parallel to Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Peter Cushing was super tough as Van Helsing. In The Brides of Dracula (1960) he actually burns a vampire bite out of his neck with a red hot poker. One of the great joys of writing Abby is that she actually uses real movie titles mixed with ones that I’ve made up. In the climatic scene of the book, Abby and Vince use inspiration once again from The Brides of Dracula, but at the same time, Abby spouts off about totally fictional movies whose titles are in the spirit of these old films, such as Lucifer’s Gladiators or Wolfman! Wolfman!, the werewolf musical.

Being a monster movie buff convincingly is what part of the book is about. The other part is Abby’s mistaken belief that her father’s films are a real life guide for how to kill monsters. In Abby’s world, her parents fight the good fight against the forces of darkness every day, and to be like them is her goal, but she only knows what knowledge she has gleaned from her dad’s films. This part of the book draws not only from Hollywood, but also from the folklore of various monsters and mythos. And, it goes without saying Abby has to learn a lot about how to deal with monsters and how to coexist.

Abigail Rath Versus Bloodsucking Fiends will be available April 20th, and the second in the series, Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science is well under the revision scalpel. Just like the first book plays with Universal and B-movie monster tropes, Mad Science flirts with Frankenstein, freeze rays, and giant robots. It’s a great deal of fun playing fast and lose with pop culture.

Bryon’s Muppet Backstage Pictures

Because my husband Bryon does not have his own website, I feel the need to occasionally share some of his handicraft work with you. Inspired by another Muppet fan, Bryon built his own backstage to go with the other Muppet play sets and toys he has. These pictures can convey some of what this looks like to you, but what you cannot see are the countless hours he spent decorating all the theatrical swirls with dimensional paint, the tiny dollhouse pieces he collected through the mail, or the intricacy of fitting all the pieces together. All I can say is I’m impressed. This is not my skill set at all! Now, he just needs a similarly ornate project to see him through our current quarantine.

I hope you enjoy these select photos.

Fantastic History #54: Buddy Cops in Speculative Fiction by Dan Stout

You got Elves in my Mystery!

Speculative fiction and mystery have long lived side-by-side. The earliest incarnations of the mystery genre were heavy with speculative elements, a trend found in works such as Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue or Hodgson’s Carnacki stories.

In recent years the blending of mystery and fantasy has grown more common, especially after the rise in popularity of the urban fantasy and paranormal romance subcategories. Not long ago a story that brought fantasy into a modern setting or that had equal parts romance and magic would have fallen between the genre cracks. Today they are flourishing, with readerships devoted to the exciting new work being done in these subgenres.

My personal obsession with the blend of mystery and speculative fiction was triggered by late 90s TSR novels such as Murder in Tarsis, whose covers promised a mix of dungeons and dragons and detectives. I admit that I never actually picked up any of those novels, but the idea of seeing how a detective would go about their business in a different time or world was fascinating. They felt like the Cadfael mysteries, which were set in 12th century England, but with the addition of magic and dragons. And really, what’s cooler than that?

Buddy Cop Defined

A very specific kind of crime narrative, Buddy Cop stories are a variation on the “odd couple” theme, a classic take on the traditional relationship story. And these go way back, appearing at least a few thousand years ago, in the epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is the hero of the saga, but he starts off as an oppressive king. In fact, he’s so reprehensible that the gods decide to ground him in reality by pairing him with Enkidu, a hair-covered “wild man”. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are diametric opposites. Enkidu is connected to nature and has empathy for the oppressed, which contrasts with Gilgamesh’s entitled elitism. Together, they each make the other a better person.

Similar friendships are depicted in everything from the Iliad to the TV incarnations of Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. The obvious step from these narratives to the Buddy Cop is the addition of a crime to solve.
But when modern readers talk about “buddy cop,” stories, they’re not talking about two friends who solve crimes, like Holmes and Watson or Nancy Drew and Bess. They’re usually talking about the pairings of misfits who don’t particularly want to be joined at the hip, but find a way to get along.

So for our purposes, we can define Buddy Cop stories as relationship stories focused on a crime, with a pair of prickly characters struggling to get along.

This relationship can be found in novels as diverse as Caves of Steel and A Murder of Mages, and films such as Alien Nation, Men in Black, and The Last Action Hero.

Braided Roses

So now that we’ve got a good definition of a Buddy Cop story, how do we explore that relationship? One of my favorite tricks for writing relationships is the “braided roses” technique. (I’ve heard it taught by several different people, though I first heard it from Dave Farland.)

The crux of this technique is to consider each of the two characters as a rose. Each beautiful in their own way, both characters also has their personal set of thorns that make it difficult to get close to them. At first, these two roses seem like they could never be together, but as you line them up, you’ll find that they weave together, avoiding each other’s thorns, and that the end result is far more beautiful than either one alone. But the real power of this metaphor is that the thorns don’t go away. Instead, the two characters learn to coexist, and to function better together than they ever could have alone.

This works for any kind of relationship, whether that’s romantic or procedural. And Buddy Cop stories work because of this universality. On the macro level, they can explore a multitude of conflicts, and use the character confrontations, investigation, and elements of speculative wonder to dive into any societal disquiet imaginable. At the same time, they allow the storyteller to zoom in and examine the two investigators as people, highlighting both how they are different and how they are more alike than they might realize.

Learn how to tie two characters together while also drawing from multiple genres, and you’ll have a powerful tool at your disposal. From the saga of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to today, the idea of pairing a socially polished figure with a loose cannon (Lethal Weapon) or a street-savvy pro with a newcomer to town (Rush Hour/Alien Nation), or even teaming a cranky mentor with a fresh-faced kid (Men in Black) has been a go-to for relationship stories throughout the ages.

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Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes noir with a twist of magic and a disco chaser. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Intergalactic Medicine Show. He is the author of The Carter Archives, a series of noir fantasy novels from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at his website.

Fantastic History #53: Two Stories or More than I Can Chew by Shannon Ryan

This is a tale of two stories, one I abandoned, realizing I was way over my head, and one that I finished in a week. I offer these examples in the hope someone can learn from my mistakes.

I generally write urban fantasy with a humorous twist. However, two years ago, I had a grand idea. Or maybe you could call it a Grand Wizard idea (sorry). I decided to write a novel based in the US Civil War with cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest as the villain, based on the fact that they called Forest “The Wizard of the Saddle.” I intended it to have an X-Files meets Wild Wild West feel. This was a horrible idea on many levels.

While Forrest was a famous, and some say brilliant, cavalry leader, he was a Confederate general and a slave trader. And given the sentiments in US politics today, any comedy involving a slave owner would probably go over slightly worse than a remake of Hogan’s Heroes. However, as a writer, I experienced something even worse. I could not find any empathy for Forrest, and I believe you have to have a little love for your villain.

Forrest’s legacy after the war was even more problematic. He survived the war and went on to found the Ku Klux Klan, and he is a hero to white supremacists. Not an organization or group of people I want to promote or encourage on any level. Finally, I am not a historian, and I’m a little soft on geography as well. I could probably do decently filling out the names of states on a map, but I probably would not get 100%. The US Civil War is one of the most documented and dissected periods in history, and no matter how many films, articles, or books I ingested, I felt like I only had the first layer of the onion peeled.

Even though I failed in this endeavor, I did find it an enriching experience. While I might never be able keep up with a Civil War buff or historian, I know how McClellan’s leadership differed from Grant’s and how the political organization of the Confederacy affected the provisioning of their military. I even hold opinions on these topics. So my wholly failed endeavor taught me more about American history than my secondary education—not to disparage my teachers, I just know my learning style and designed a curriculum to fit.

However, I did mention two stories. Well, a few months ago, I was hanging out with some writer friends, and we came up with the idea of a vampire doing porn in the 1970s as a protagonist. Now, unlike Civil War cavalry, this was a little more my speed.

I found the 1970’s a great time to write in. Not that I remember it, I was a toddler in the 1970s. However, all the pop culture of the time is available through the Internet in bite-sized nuggets. You want fashion of the times, you can find thousands of pictures—including one of David Hasslehoff wearing a pink shirt with only two buttons, both below the navel. Need to come up with the names of pornography studios or actors, just a web search away. Want the protagonist to drive a Dodge muscle car made in 1977, Wikipedia will tell you the Super Bee wasn’t made after 1971, but the Charger was in production.

But here’s the main takeaway from my 1970s story. It was easy to write because I was not writing about any relevant historical events, just using the trappings of the time as a setting. If I had been writing about the assassination of Harvey Milk and the White Night riots, I am sure I would have felt just as paralyzed. Now that I have finished a historical piece, I have to say I’m a little hooked. I might have to write a story that takes place during the Civil War someday, but I think I will avoid characters who might show up in a history book.

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Shannon Ryan lives in Marion, Iowa. He writes weird, funny stories in the urban fantasy genre, featuring satanic telemarketers and awkward vampires. His latest book PANIC NO MORE is about a computer programmer harassed by a Greek god.