Lesson 1: Never Trust a Wolf.
People like David Attenborough would have you believe that wolves are harmless creatures, wonderful examples of nature at its finest – strong, noble, dignified. Well, he’s wrong. Fairy Tales have taught me that wolves are evil, nasty and cunning beasts who will stop at nothing to devour you whole. Not only will they give you false directions while you’re wandering in the woods, they will even dress up in women’s clothes in order to deceive you. If there isn’t a brave woodcutter nearby, you’re history.
And, needless to say, you don’t want to be a harmless old grandmother when a wolf needs your nightie… According to fairy tales, senior citizens the world over must be shaking in their beds dreading the knock that signals the wolf at the door. Fairy tales show us again and again the sheer cunning of these canines as they manage to get inside and then, it’s goodnight Granny.
And that’s not to mention the plight of those who choose to build their houses out of straw or sticks … Fairy tales demonstrate over and over that these harmless home dwellers are persecuted not just by an ordinary wolf, but by a Big Bad Wolf. And why? Is it just because they construct their houses out of substandard building materials? Is it because they don’t have the necessary council planning permits? No. It’s simply because those inside these flimsy houses taste so good, especially roasted in a nice hot oven and served with plenty of apple sauce and crackling …
But I digress. Fairy tales have taught me: never trust a wolf.
Lesson 2: Learn to tell the difference between a wolf and your granny.
It might sound obvious, but this may be a vital survival step one day.
Lesson 3: Names are important.
Fairy tales showed me just how important names really are. For instance, if a character’s name happens to be something like Rumplestiltskin, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’s not going to be the romantic hero played by Leonardo di Caprio in a soon to be released big budget motion picture based on the fairy tale of the same name. Or then again, he might, depending on what you think of Leonardo di Caprio. Whatever, a name like Rumplestiltskin would be like someone today calling their baby SnortyBottomFartyBreath and expecting them to grow up a well adjusted and rounded human being.
In fairy tales if your name is Jack, forget about having a dull life. I feel sorry for those males in fairy tales who happened to be called Jack, and all they wanted was to have a nice quiet life and grow up and become an accountant. Fat chance. Every Jack in a fairy tale is destined to become a Giant Killer, or to Be Nimble, or to grow enormous bean stalks and steal treasure, or to be Jack Frost, Jack Be Nimble or one half of Jack and Jill.
Let’s face it. If you’re a Jack in a fairy tale, you’re going to wind up an action hero whether you like it or not. When there’s Careers Counselling at Fairy Tale School, they don’t even bother with Jacks. They’re just pointed at the door marked Danger, Fame and Fortune and that’s that. If you’re a Jack, don’t even think about doing a traineeship at Target. Jack’s are glory bound, no questions asked.
And you have to be lucky with names in fairy tales, too. Look at Snow White and Rose Red. A bit unimaginative, don’t you think? It’s like calling your dog Mud Brown. But anyway I’m glad they didn’t have any younger brothers and sisters. What would they have ended up as? Sky Blue? Tree Green? Butter Yellow? Blush Pink? They’d start to sound like they should be in a paint colour chart not a fairy tale.
Whatever, Fairy Tales have shown me that names are important.
Lesson 4. Take Care of Your Feet.
You never know. They could be your ticket to marrying the Prince and living happily ever after, which sounds like a pretty good gig if you can get it, as long as he allows you your personal space with plenty of room to grow as a human being.
A note: the glorious illustrations above are by Virginia Frances Sterrett who died tragically young and really deserves to be better known.
Keats said it, and said it best. Autumn is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. I love the cool, dewy mornings. I love the way the hot air balloons arrive, happy in the calmer, cooler skies. I love the long, blue afternoons that fade into drowsy dusk. I love the changing colours of leaves and the smell of wood smoke in the air.
Autumn, my favourite season.
TO AUTUMN – John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
On this fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, I thought I’d bring some of his writing advice to you. This comes from a letter that Lewis sent to a young correspondent in 1956, but the suggestions are eternal.
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure y[ou]r. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
- In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Source: C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W Dorsett and Marjorie Lampmead, Collins London 1985.
As a Fantasy writer, I spend a great deal of time thinking about and playing around with magic – how it works, who can do it, the necessary limitations it has and the cost it must incur to the user. So it’s a natural step to start thinking about real life magic – sleight of hand and prestidigitation. This is most apparent in my latest series, The Extraordinaires, where Kingsley Ward has an abiding ambition to perform astounding magic on stage.
Writing about magic has also made me think about the possibilities of actually doing magic. I’ve dabbled, for years, and I’ve even undertaken a ‘Magic For Beginners’ course. All of this has increased my admiration for the practitioners of the art even more. The more I know, the more I realise how difficult it is to perform magic illusions right in front of people’s eyes.
The magic trick I show you below goes back to my early teenage years and it’s the first magic trick I mastered. The gasps and looks of respect may have been in my imagination, but I’ve never forgotten the satisfaction that comes from a successful routine. Here, I share the trick and how it’s done. If you don’t want to know – if you want the magic to last – just stop the video before my explanation.
While Jack Vance’s passing on 26/5/13 was hardly a surprise – he was ninety-six – it still saddened me. Jack Vance might still be largely unknown outside genre circles, but he has been enormously important for me.
I picked up my first Jack Vance novel in Adelaide when I was fifteen. The Eyes of the Overworld was a slap in the face, a dash of cold water, a literary Taser. I’d literally never read anything like it. I devoured the book whole and I’ve re-read it a dozen times since. It’s a wonderful example of mature Jack Vance, a sublime construction following one of Vance’s typical trickster protagonists on a picaresque journey through a wildly imaginative world. This might sound like a thousand other generic fantasies, but Jack Vance is different – startlingly different. His characters are sardonic, often detached and aloof, with motives that are guarded and inscrutable. His prose is inimitable, full of words repurposed for lyrical effect, sentences with jagged, archaic, stylised rhythms. His writing is so carefully purposed, so distinctive, that even the shortest extract announces its creator:
Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his somewhat lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candour, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth.
The whole effect is a supremely idiosyncratic creation, a joy to read and to be part of.
After this, I couldn’t get enough Vance. I sought out his Dying Earth, the precursor to The Eyes of the Overworld, and I was similarly bowled over. Luckily for me, Jack Vance has been a prolific writer, so I had plenty to catch up on. I found The Dragon Masters, his Demon Prince series, the Cadwal series. I was given a copy of The Languages of Pao, his fascinating exploration of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis where languages determine national characteristics. I tracked down his short stories – read ‘The Moon Moth’ and prepared to be astonished.
When he began his masterly Lyonesse trilogy, I was lining up for it – and not disappointed. Many of his earlier works were short stories or novellas, in truth. The Lyonesse trilogy gave Vance elbow room. The result is elegiac, lyrical, playful, discursive, confronting, melancholic and wistful, a book series to read and re-read again and again.
Jack Vance is a truly great writer, but one who is appallingly neglected by those unfamiliar with the best that genre can offer. Sometimes this inspires an unhealthy feeling of glee – ‘We have him to ourselves!’ – but more often I’m dismayed that the rest of the reading world is missing out on the work of this extraordinary artist.
Harry Houdini toured Australia in 1910. A tireless self-promoter, he embarked on a series of stunts to publicise his performances, including being wrapped in chains and hurling himself from Melbourne’s Princes Bridge into the Yarra River. Various members of the public set challenges as well, with fiendishly difficult rope entanglements, hand-built coffins and manacles of devilish devise.
With all this, it’s no wonder that Houdini appreciated a ‘healing embrocation’, especially for those wrists chafed during his handcuff escapes. An obvious aficionado of soft and supple skin, Houdini penned a testimonial to the makers of Zam-Buk, an ointment which promised to heal ‘cuts, bruises, scalds, burns, eczema, pimples, psoriasis, piles, bad legs and other affections of the skin and tissues’.
It’s good to know that even masters of mysteries like Houdini need to take care of life’s niceties.
A few months ago, I was at the Radio National Melbourne studio and recorded a spot where I reflect on my five most memorable cultural experiences. It was aired yesterday and you can get the podcast here.
We went to the moon. Can you get your head around that? We, collectively, as a species, went to the moon. That moon, the one way up there – we went to it. We went right around the other side. We trod on its dusty surface. We picked up rocks. We measured stuff. WE DROVE A FREAKIN’ DUNE BUGGY ALL OVER THE PLACE!
We went to the moon.
Yes, we all know that, but I’m not sure if we appreciate it, or appreciate it enough. What an effort. What an achievement. What a batty, glorious, arrogant thing it was even to conceive of. ‘Okay, the moon. Let’s go there to see what it’s like.’ It’s one of the great things about humanity, this ability to undertake something vast, futile and poetic, just because.
We did it, and then we stopped. We haven’t been back since 1972.
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10 Futures is a very different book for me, a real departure from the wonderful Steampunk worlds of ‘The Laws of Magic’ and ‘The Extraordinaires’. I needed to abandon the gloriously formal and extended language of the Edwardian era and use language that is more clipped and direct. And 10 Futures doesn’t have much humour, which was a real wrench for me, but different contexts and different milieus require different approaches to writing.
10 Futures isn’t just random speculating. Each story segment has been carefully researched, and this is one area that was consistent with my last ten years of writing. The only difference was that instead of researching history, I was researching current trends and then trying to find good, evidence-based extrapolation. I looked at societal and cultural trends as well as scientific developments and asked the classic question: ‘What happens if this goes on?’
As well as this exploration of trends and wondering about the direction of humanity over the next hundred years, I was also considering the nature of ethical issues and moral dilemmas. Do morals change over time, or are some situations eternal? What affects our judgement of right and wrong? How could this change in response to a changing world? Should it change in response to a changing world? Read More | Comments