Archive for January, 2015

Old Mermaid SketchSorry if I’m overdoing the mermaid stories lately (check out my last much shorter post for the other one), but it seemed not only a handy coincidence, but also very appropriate for my own particular specialty that the story emailed out (and posted online) by Daily Science Fiction tonight is JY Yang‘s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt,” a nice little story (very short, as that is how DSF does it) inspired by Scandinavian folklore about the “Havsmannen”, or the merman–though there is a bit of a twist here (will try to avoid any spoilers though). And actually, not that it particularly matters, you may want to read the story before reading the rest of my bit below. Ready? Go! ….

Done? OK. In the “author’s note” JY Yang says that she was inspired by Swedish folklore in which the havsmannen (literally “man of the sea”, = mer-man) will visit a sailor’s wife while she is gone, in the form of her husband, sometimes leading to the birth of some fishy progeny.

A German vision of a merman, from the 1600s. Sorry, Swedish Wikipedia only gave me this image, not a specifically Swedish image…

To be honest, while some parts of my academic work have revolved around folk narrative (the relevant genre here is legend), I’m realizing right now that I haven’t really spent very much time with folklore of the sea at all–I know a few stories of mer-women driving their cattle up on land (apparently they have legs, as well as cattle, which humans can sometimes gain by means dastardly or fair, making them very similar to the hidden-folk or other varieties of supernatural communities in Scandi folklore), or a mer-man getting a glove from a fisherman, things like that, but when it comes to water-beings, I’m more familiar with the Swedish näcken, aka bäckahästen (creek-horse), a fresh-water male nature sprite. But there are some interesting parallels to other Scandi folklore that I think are worth mentioning in this context. One is the way JY Yang’s story starts out as a story of the return of someone drowned at sea–a common motif all the way from the sagas up through the rural folklore of the early 20th century, and an understandable one, as the dead tend to return when something is either left unfinished or they are not buried properly–ie, no ritual is performed to conduct them safely from one mode of existence to the next (actually an exemplary case of something left unfinished, now I think on it…). [spoiler alert] The mer-person in JY Yang’s story is obviously aware of this, and initially passes as such. 

As I noted above, the mer-person folklore does have some similarities to legends of the communities of supernatural others in general. When the supernatural others (again, the hidden folk, the under-earthers, etc) are represented as living in communities, they are often also represented as living parallel to the human community, as well as living very human-like lives. Sure, when you take something from one world to the next (for example, if they give you gold or food as a present), it may turn out to be some symbolic inversion of itself (dirt or crap), but there are stories where (somewhat) typical neighbor-problems come up between the two communities, and with both the mer-folk and the hidden folk we sometimes see one of their girls driving their cattle near the human community, or being given as a reward to a human.

Stattin’s book–in Swedish, I’m afraid. I can’t remember if there is an English translation…

That said, it seems to me that the stories of solitary nature-beings are a bit more relevant here. As opposed to the supernatural beings that live in community, these solitary supernaturals live alone out in the forest, and tend to be gender specific–some are always female, some are always male (not always though–trolls and giants, for example, can be male or female, and could fall into this category to some degree). We see (as noted in a book by Jochum Stattin on näcken) that the ways in which human men and women encounter these creatures can be pretty different–men tend to encounter these representatives of “wild nature” further out from the human community, which may be taken as a socially normative aspect of the legends, associating men with access to the wider and wilder world. Näcken, for example, shows up as a male humanoid figure (or not at all) for men who go to his hideaway at a stream to learn to play the fiddle from him (actually, näcken‘s legends overlap with Satan’s a bit when it comes to sinful pleasures like [shudder] music and dancing), and many a hunter has, wittingly or not, carried out a tryst with a skogsrå, a female forest creature who is beautiful from the front, but if seen from the back is hollow (or has a tail, or is a monster if seen after you cross yourself, whatever)–point being, men get to go out in to the realm of these creatures and treat with them, successfully or not. Women, on the other hand, do not meet the skogsrå, and when they meet näcken it is generally in a threatening way–in the form of the bäckahästen running around the farm (human space) attempting to trick women (or children) onto his back to then dive into the lake with them. The threat of the supernatural Other is often sexualized as well, more or less explicitly, and while men may successfully carry on trysts at times, for women the end result tends to involve a distancing from the human community (unless saved/recovered), including abduction.

The inspiration behind this story that JY Yang shares seems to fit this pattern as well–while men meet the havsmannen out at sea, and may even engage with him in some way (giving him a glove or a sock when he is cold, receiving cattle in return), women meet the havsmannen as an intruder at home–though perhaps even here the folklore is more concerned with the invasion of the “man’s” space–his house, “his” womb, his lineage. But hey, while much of the legend tradition of rural, patriarchal Sweden of the 1800s and earlier was pretty normative, there is still room for debate and dissenting voices at times–for example, differing opinions show up with regard to the potential salvation of the non-human (and therefore non-Christian) supernatural Others. JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt” is also nicely subversive of the patriarchy, moving from zombie-story to invasive-merman-story to a story of a woman embracing an unexpected opportunity for a mutual and authentic relationship after an unhappy and undesired marriage (and yeah, a little gender-bending here as well). Nice to see that Swedish legends are still “alive,” and in flux, as legends always are–and also nice to see that they have some purchase in Singapore as well. 🙂

And one more note–looks like Swedish novelist Carl-Johan Vallgren has a recent novel titled Havsmannen out as well–I will have to get my hand on a copy. Maybe someone will hire me to translate it… hint hint. Though I hear translating fiction really pays like crud. Or otherworldly gold, maybe. :/

Read Full Post »


A quick mermaid sketch–the moon through the waves didn’t quite turn out…

I don’t think I get around to recommending short fiction much (which is a shame, because the short fiction market has historically been very significant for those of us who like sci-fi and fantasy, but the main market seems hyper-focused on novels these days), but I wanted to recommend “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong, a new talent on the market. Her story “Fisher Queen” is her first published, coming out in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction last summer (talk about starting big, geez–also, interview about the story here). She has since had a story published in Strange Horizons, but I haven’t had a chance to read that yet (edit: finally read it, and it is great! Really well done, Filipino (Filipina?) fantasy, and also an interesting exploration of the colonial tensions and the religious syncretism of that country). I found out about her story through Usman Malik’s list of favorite works for 2014 (need to read more on that list), which I in turn got from Tor’s Facebook page (and of course Tor.com had a ton of amazing stories last year as well–too many for me to keep up with). A quick note though–the story maybe deserves a bit of a trigger warning. Not that there is anything especially graphic here, but sexual violence does show up as an essential part of the story.

My only other mermaid sketch (I think) from my Tumblr last year.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I really appreciate those authors who can take the speculative fiction genres (sci-fi and fantasy are the big two, I guess) and say something with them that just can’t be said with more “mundane” genres, or at least not as effectively, or in quite the same way. Alyssa’s story is a great example of that, in this case (to my mind) bringing together feminist and ecocritical approaches in a very concrete way–not an unusual alignment in literature, theoretical and otherwise, but because this is speculative fiction we see what would otherwise be a more metaphorical or allegorical rhetorical moment made concrete and “real”–sure, it is imaginary, but the imaginary elements serve as a very effective way to highlight aspects of the “real-world” that are not always obvious (to everyone, at least). Alyssa does an excellent job demonstrating the power of a “what-if” story with “Fisher Queen”, and I look forward to reading more of her work!

Read Full Post »

Other Worlds

castle_and_planet_by_callego-d8dfdq2Normally I just post plain old art posts on my DA account and on tumblr, but I figured I’d put this up here since the idea of Other Worlds, along the full range of the literal-figurative spectrum, tend to come up in this blog in terms of my work and my passions. This pic just started out with my doodling a castle in my moleskine (I doodled castles and towers a lot in high school and college–oh gosh, what would Freud say–but never really did anything polished/finished), so the perspective on the building is a bit off the cuff and probably not well done, but in the end I ended up taking inspiration from the sort of New Wave science fiction of some of LeGuin’s Hainish novels or McCaffrey’s Pern books where the setting is an alien planet, but the culture and story are pseudo-medieval, bordering on fantasy. I guess this is what you get when sci-fi writers fall in love with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The swords-in-space deal certainly shows up earlier as well (cf John Carter’s adventures on Mars), and in the wake of the New Wave medieval or “primitive” fantasy merged with science fiction in illustration with publications like Heavy Metal (and regular pulp comics have their share of this genre blending as well), so I suppose it is a relatively “normal” combination now (I mean, heck, I grew up on Star Wars, He-Man, and Thundercats…), but there is something about these sorts of stories that seems tied to that particular period to me.

Another reason Other Worlds have been on my mind lately is I’ve been running across a few space documentaries, including one or two covering all the new exo-planet discoveries from the Kepler spacecraft. Having read of the stellar neighborhood in LeGuin’s Hainish books, I’m more able to catch the vision of our own stellar neighborhood–and as I noted in a previous exo-planet post, it was reading Gene Wolfe’s (implausible, I am told) vision of two worlds closely orbiting each other in The Fifth Head of Cerberus that gave me the trigger I needed to look up at the moon and see a whole other world.

However cool all the exoplanet discoveries, they are still pretty inaccessible–but of course, we have some awesome worlds in our own “backyard.” It’s been a while since I’ve taken my telescope out, but I will always remember the first few times I saw the ice caps on Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and the barest trace of the rings of Saturn. I noticed that National Geographic has a documentary on the planets of our own solar system up on their Youtube channel, so I will include that below. Enjoy!

Read Full Post »

On my way to raid a small coastal village (2005 or 2006, can't remember).

On my way to raid a small coastal village (2006 or 2007, can’t remember).

Job announcement for a position as a real-life Viking sea captain in Norway! Yikes. I really wish they’d offered a grad seminar on sailing at UCB. Oh well. I did get to row in a… well, not really a Viking ship, but a 19th century Norwegian fishing boat that was clinker-built in the manner of the Viking ships. A bunch of us aspiring (or already established) Old Norse philologists, paleographers, and general trouble makers took a field trip to the Viking Ship museum in Roskilde and got to go out (they didn’t let us in the actual Viking reproductions though…).

My oldest niece drew this for me while I was in Iceland. She was 10 at the time, but 6 years later she maybe doesn't want to remember this, haha...

My oldest niece drew this for me while I was in Iceland. She was 10 at the time, but 6 years later she maybe doesn’t want to remember this, haha…

I didn’t think I did too bad, but I definitely saw a few of us academic types rowing counter to each other while chatting and completely ignoring what our wild and wooly and increasingly frustrated Norwegian sea caption was trying to tell us. No one got knocked overboard by the boom (or whatever it’s called), but there were some close calls. Lesson to be learned: being a Viking scholar does not make one a Viking.

Vikings rawrViking ships were great technological innovations of course, and maybe one of these days I will have a chance to talk more about them–the cliff’s notes version: the clinker construction (overlapping strakes along the whole length of the ship) allowed the ship to flex and survive rough seas (so it could go in deep water–great range, in other words), the shallow draft allowed it to go in shallow water (including up creeks–so very far inland), and the adoption of the sail just prior to the Viking age (if I am remembering correctly) meant less rowing, hurray!

And remember that according to one current theory, the term Viking itself comes from the rowing shifts on a voyage abroad!

Read Full Post »

From a roundtable with other futurists in the American Bicentennial issue of National Geographic.

From a roundtable with other futurists in the American Bicentennial issue of National Geographic.

So apparently January second is the day the prolific author Isaac Asimov chose to celebrate his birthday, according to this post from Tor.com. With talk of a television series based on the books, I suppose this is a good year to offer up a birthday post (plus I need to make up for how scarce my blog posts have been since starting my new job…). Like Asimov’s Robot books, the Foundation series includes some later sequels, bridging the gap between the Golden Age science fiction (of which the original books are arguably the culmination) and the post-New Wave sci-fi of the 80s and 90s. These later works are more representative of late Asimov than either the New Wave of sci-fi (that is particularly clear–his humanism certainly shows, but it is a more naive humanism compared to the more post-modern/post-structuralist feel of the likes of LeGuin and Delany) or the combination of hard SF and space opera found in much post-Star Wars sci-fi, and I find that many people enjoy his original books more than his later ones. I devoured them all as a teenager, and seem to be on a once-a-decade reread schedule at this point.

The opening of Asimov's short-story of a visit to a space station in 2026, from the Nat. Geo. Bicentennial Issue again.

The opening of Asimov’s short-story of a visit to a space station in 2026, from the Nat. Geo. Bicentennial Issue again.

I’m not sure whether the late greats Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are still the first encounters most sci-fi nerds have with the genre, but for Junior High me in the early 90s they certainly were–well, OK, I’d encountered Star Wars before that, and from there read and reread the more science-fictional of the Choose your own Adventure books (a few of which certainly showed heavy influence from the Golden Age sci-fi of Asimov and Clarke), and back in 3rd grade I’d already started my own (alas, never finished) science fiction epic, but it was with my reading of Asimov’s classics like Foundation, and not-as-classic works like Nemesis, along with Clarke’s Space Odyssey and Rama books, that I finally waded into the main stream of the anglophone sci-fi tradition.

I don’t have time to make an illustration of my own, and don’t have any of my Asimov books to take a picture of since I am at my grandparents’ cabin right now, but at that cabin we do have a wall of National Geographics, including the 1976 American Bicentennial issue, which features a roundtable of Futurists like Buckminster Fuller and Isaac Asimov, as well as a short-story by Asimov (illustrated by Pierre Mion) about a reporter’s visit to a solar-power space station at the L5 lagrange point in the vicinity of the moon in 2026. The story involves a lot of standard hard-SF tropes, from the rotating space station to harvesting the moon for resources, and certainly this particular conception of a space station both looks back to vizualizations in 2001, von Braun’s work, and much earlier, as well as forward to games like Halo. I’m just including a couple pics here because I don’t want the folks at Nat Geo to get upset at me, but if you are an enthusiast for these sorts of things, I recommend finding a copy! It’s a fun short story, and it’s always intriguing to see what people have predicted for the future. Well, depressing sometimes too–the space station we have is awesome, but also not really comparable to these grand cities, and the futurists didn’t really anticipate things like 9/11, US government sponsored torture (let alone a world where many Americans are in favor of said torture), or any of the other crises facing us. But at times it is more important for the futurist to give us a positive vision, naive or not, a vision of us at our best, near as we can imagine it. We may never “be” Star Trek, and there may be aspects of that vision of the future that we could still criticize, but it does make social and ethical dimensions as central to the concept of “progress” as technological advancement (even more so). For another bicentennial-period fictionalized vision of the future, check out Arthur C. Clarke’s lesser-known novel Imperial Earth, which is quality hard-SF with an intriguing look at a colony on Titan, at life on earth in two centuries, as well as ending with… well, I guess I don’t want to spoil it. 🙂 To return to Asimov, we could consider this fictional tour of a city in space to be a sort of prequel to his late novel Nemesis, which features a solar system full of even huger and more sophisticated space-stations–one of which disappears one day, and starts off a novel’s worth of intrigue and exploration. Features a nerdy, lonely teenage girl as protagonist, at a time when that was still relatively rare in hard SF (maybe it still is–I think such protagonists are more likely to show up in other corners of the speculative fiction universe, esp. in YA fic…).

Read Full Post »


A quick post for the new year. I’ve been a bit down about various partings, past, present, and imminent, so I had a bit of a “oh, yes, that’s it…” moment when I ran across a version of the “I see the moon” folk-song in a poetry collection of Sarah Kay, as a lead-in to her poem “Astronaut.” I really like Kay’s version, though I don’t know whether it is her own unique version of the song or a version she learned elsewhere. Apparently it was also a pop-song back in the 50s, and it looks like there are a few different traditional versions listed in various places on the web, including several youtube links for various versions here at Mamma Lisa’s. The sentiment recalls (or predates?) that of the “Somewhere out there” song in An American Tale–a movie I don’t really remember, though the idea of standing under the same sky, the same moon, as someone dear but far away has stuck with me since some early viewing.

Below is a video of Sarah Kay performing “Astronaut”, complete with a rendition of “I see the moon” at the start.


Read Full Post »