Random Box 01: Silicon Valley and Cinderella

sort of…

My sister and I binged the first season of Silicon Valley over 4th of July weekend. I’m a fan, even if Erlich drives me nuts.

Last night I had a dream that Jared (the one who knows what a business plan looks like) was actually an evil mastermind who took over Pied Piper from the inside once they were funded. Maybe not great storytelling, but it was pretty entertaining. Dreams are weird.

What my subconscious did with Silicon Valley is something I do for kicks with friends —  armchair revisions of tv or movies. How would you fix that one episode? Or, if they just didn’t tack five endings on… etc… etc…

Now theoretically,  outside of our modern era of global media and mass distribution, my revisions could be heard/consumed with as much authority as my voice could lend them. But because I’ll never get to remake Silicon Valley, Jared will never take over the world outside of my subconscious. Not that I really want him to.

But this is something I think about a lot — the definitive power of ‘permanent’ stories. What does it mean that one version of a story is definitive? How does that effect our culture? And what are the virtues of the mediums that don’t create static stories?

Obviously live theater is where it’s easy to see mutable stories. Different people in different costumes bring different interpretations and allow a certain life that something like a film is denied. It’s something I love about the traditional ballets  — I’ve seen Swan Lake with a bunch of different endings. But of course, when you start doing film versions of stage shows, the film gets a permanence (and from that permanence authority), denied to live theater.

Hence mixed feelings for the forthcoming version of Macbeth. (Okay, I’m mostly excited, but…)

Inevitably, this is tied to representation. One of the reasons it’s important to see diverse representation in popular culture is that we only get so many definitive versions of stories right now — a couple popular movies, a tv show — overpowering thousands of versions retold to small audiences. If you are an American talking about Cinderella — you’re probably going to think of the new Disney or old Disney versions. Maybe something like Ella Enchanted or Cinder or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister will come to mind. Imagine the world if this were the definitive version of Cinderella (by Lauren K. Moody — it’s short, go read it), the Disney version so to speak.

It’s a different world.

Anyway. Penny for your thoughts?

Box 17 – Blake Charlton’s Spellwright

So, today we dive into the lovely and fantastical box which is Blake Charlton’s Spellwright. The novel sports an innovative magic system, beautiful writing and puns for those who don’t normally pun. Keep the title in mind as we go.

***Spoiler Warning***

Below this line, I shall spoil without mercy or guilt. You are warned.

Spellwright is the tale of Nicodemus Weal, a cacographic (dyslexic, in this case) spellwright in a world where magic is literally “spelled” in words and paragraphs. Nicodemus is the potential center of several prophecies and plots for power, and struggles to understand what is happening around him, while trying to overcome his disability with magic.

The first item I want to talk about is the word “disability.” It’s used to describe Nicodemus and his fellow cacographers. Nicodemus’ life and his self-perception are heavily based in the reality of how the other wizards (“authors”) treat him. It’s never taken lightly, and it doesn’t go away. Nicodemus’ disability walks with him, convenient or not.

Lesson #1: There are lots of under represented experiences in fantasy. When it comes to mental disabilities, the other examples that spring to mind are Thick from Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man Trilogy and Hodor from Mr. Martin’s world. Neither of which come close to protagonist material. (More examples I am missing? Head to the comments, dear readers!) Under represented perspectives can make your writing more compelling (if you do it while thinking of the character as a person, not a mouthpiece) and broadening the experiences we write about in fantasy is good for the genre. 

Next we’ll get into the magic system itself. Magic in the world of Spellwright is written spells in magical languages. There are different languages, most specific to a culture or organization. Spellwrights write letters, words and paragraphs in their bodies and cast them into the world to create an effect. A vocabulary of composition is used to describe the magic, making it more accessible than an invented vocabulary would be able to.

Lesson #2: Using mundane and common language to describe the foreign or magical aspects of a world helps the reader enter that world. I was sold on Spellwright in the prologue, where a wizard is forced to “eat her words,” which takes on a horrifying connotation as you quickly realize how the magic system works. Charlton continues to twist common sayings and give them new meanings throughout the book.

On the other end of combining the familiar and the strange, one of the magical languages introduced in the book is Language Prime – the language out of which all life is written. It has only four letters, and therefore any spell written in Language Prime is terribly long and very difficult to memorize. Language Prime is DNA.

Lesson #3: It is useful to describe the strange in terms of the commonplace, but it is also useful to look at the commonplace through the lens of the strange. Taking DNA and working it into the core magic concept adds a level of verisimilitude, and heck: It’s just cool.

The last thing I want to talk about is laying restrictions and obstacles on your character. As a protagonist moves through a heroic story, they are likely to become more powerful/competent/skilled, but they can’t become too powerful. Nicodemus’ great obstacle is his cacography, but that is used to inform his smaller obstacles. He comes into possession of an Index capable of accessing every book and journal in the magical university where he studies. This is super powerful, but his contact with the book means that anything he looks up misspells (another word that takes on a whole new meaning in this story). So, he cannot simply pull powerful wartexts off a page. They misspell and don’t work for him.

He finds a language to spell in, one that is logical and his dyslexia does not effect, but magic written in this language dissolves under sunlight: it was developed by subterrestrial people.

He learns Language Prime, but he will misspell any living thing he touches.

Lesson #4: The deeper the limitation, the better the hero must be to overcome it. Peter S. Beagle put it better: “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed.” This book sets solid limitations on each stride the protagonist makes.

One last thing I enjoyed in this book: the author clearly has a deep affection for the fantasy genre. That’s not something one always wants to come through heavily, but if you have read or do read the book, you will see what I mean.

Well, that’s all folks. See you next time.