Friday Fiction: “Danny Dunn” series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine

This week’s Friday Fiction is inspired by Rachel Manija Brown, who reminded me about the “Danny Dunn” series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. They were quite formative for me, so thank you Rachel!

The first book came out in 1954 and the last in 1977. The first handful featured Danny Dunn (a curious kid way too smart for his own good), his friend Joe Pearson (a hilariously mopey budding poet and writer), and Professor Bullfinch (basically your stereotypical jolly scientist, for whom Danny’s mom is a housekeeper). Later on, Irene Miller (a Cool Girl who is just as into/good at science as Danny, her father is also a scientist) joins the team. Sometimes Professor Bullfinch’s frenemy Dr. Grimes shows up.

The books are written for older kids in school–you generally need some scientific understanding to enjoy them. They’re pretty fun, and very funny, and frequently formulaic. The formula runs something like this: Professor Bullfinch is working on something scientific. Danny et al mess with it in some manner. Adventure and shenanigans ensue!

Danny Dunn plots were usually a blend of adventure and SF, although some of the them were adventure-only. Like the one where they got stranded on a desert island. Anyway, the SF ones were probably the first SF books I ever encountered. I honestly can’t remember how old I was when I discovered the series. A kid for sure. A kid who hadn’t yet heard the bigram “science fiction.” But even if I had, I’m not sure I would have applied the term to the books.

Here’s an example. One of the first books I read was “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.” The main plot concerns Professor Bullfinch’s enormous computer (think UNIVAC and punch cards). When the professor leaves on a business trip, Danny promptly uses it to do his homework (proving the authors truly understood kids). I’m not a youngster, but when I was in high school, we had a standing PC at home. Danny Dunn’s machine was another world away. It was science fiction, all right … historical science fiction.

However, it was quite accurate, which I didn’t realize how much I appreciated until I got older and attempted to learn Java and Python. In that story, Professor Bullfinch had previously taught Danny how to program the computer. Danny realizes that he can use programming to do his and Joe’s homework, especially computation-heavy subjects like math … and does so. After he turns in the typed pages, his teacher objects on the grounds that it is not really “doing the work” if a computer is doing it for you.

Danny retorts that you have to understand the problem in order to program it well enough to have it do your homework, so he is totally “doing the work,” he is just being efficient (and perhaps a bit smug) about it.

Danny’s mother (more similar to Danny than he figures) realizes that while this is true, it is also Danny’s strategic weakness. So she gives a suggestion to Danny’s teacher that she call Danny’s bluff. And she does! She tells Danny that since he is SO advanced, and SO smart, then she should assign him more advanced work. After all, he’s got a computer to do it for him. Danny charges ahead but quickly realizes that it is a lot of work to do learn new knowledge and then to program it sufficiently that he can get the computer to spit out answers on command! Mom and Teach were right all along.

Curiously, debugging is not part of the plot. Just as well, I think poor Danny had enough to deal with at that point. Eventually he admits defeat and goes back to doing homework the old-fashioned way. The book ends on a brief discussion of humans vs computers and the professor declares that no matter how smart they get, computers will never have human creativity. (Someone needs to write the fanfic where Professor Bullfinch encounters story-writing neural networks.)

As you can extrapolate, the books were wholesome and fun and it was so nice to see a girl interested in science who was never, ever condescended to in the text. (Okay–Danny briefly tries, is slapped down hard, and never tries again.) In fact, Irene had some leading roles in the science plots. She made it seem incredibly natural and fitting that girls should be interested in science and should pursue a scientific career.

I have told some incredulous people that I never felt–as a child–that as a girl, I was unfit for science. Although I eventually encountered sexism and misogyny in science, that did not happen until college and graduate school–so judging by some stories I’ve heard, I was very lucky for a time. Which is a somewhat sad assessment, but that’s a different discussion. The point is that the Danny Dunn series were an extremely important part of my childhood experience that eventually led me to trying my hand at a science career. (It didn’t work out, but that’s hardly the books’ fault.)

Speaking of science careers, where would Danny have ended up? From the books, Danny is clearly ahead of the curve on intelligence. It’s unclear just how much, but I could easily see him going to–for instance–MIT for college. At the very least, he’d have one hell of a personal statement. Perhaps he would have pursued graduate school afterwards, although I could just as easily see him setting up a tinkering lab and inventing something and starting his own company.

And having known a lot of people with that level of intelligence, I must say that what really and truly stands out about the Danny Dunn series to me–at a level that approaches fantasy–is how ridiculously and wonderfully well-adjusted he is. If he continues down his path in life, he’s going to be the polar opposite of the Tortured And/Or Asshole Genius archetype. He has a best friend who is not into science but who is his equal! He is kind to an equally smart and well-adjusted girl! He still has a lot of room to grow (see above). When he messes up, he fesses up. His intelligence is occasionally no match for judiciously applied wisdom and experience (see above). And he still needs and loves his friends and his family.

As a former Smart Child, I used to wish I was smarter. But–to mangle that quote from Harvey–today I think it would be nicer to be more loving, and to be more loved. But of course, I hope Danny Dunn and his family and friends went on having both in their lives.

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Friday Fiction: “A Very Young …” by Jill Krementz

(L-R) Book covers: A Very Young Dancer, A Very Young Skater, A Very Gymnast.

This week’s Friday Fiction is a threefer of nonfiction books that follow young kids doing cool things: “A Very Young Dancer,” “A Very Young Skater,” and “A Very Young Gymnast”, all by Jill Krementz. (Krementz had a whole series of “Very Young X” books, of which these were likely the most popular.)

What is it about ballet, ice skating, and gymnastics that is catnip to (certain) little girls? I don’t know, but they enchanted me as a child. When I moved to the US at age 7, one of very few entertainments I had available to me was the public library. I was barely able to read English at the time, so I wandered the aisles aimlessly and somehow stumbled into those books. With their beautiful photographs and minimal text–the books are all “narrated” by their 10-year-old subjects–they were perfect for me. All three follow affluent young white girls growing up in New York City in the late 70s, training for each of those passions.

“A Very Young Dancer” follows Stephanie (last name not given, but easily searchable), a girl training in ballet at the famous School of American Ballet–the one that Balanchine founded and that feeds into the New York City Ballet. She lands the role of Marie/Clara–the star!–in SAB’s Nutcracker. It follows her through the performance and then sees her settle back into the rhythm of regular hard work at SAB, post-Nutcracker.

“A Very Young Skater” follows Katherine Healy, a girl training in figure skating. It ends with Healy doing a figure skating exhibition event.

And “A Very Young Gymnast” follows Torrance York, a girl training and competing in gymnastics. She qualified for the Junior Olympics while the book was in publication.

As a person with an obsessive personality, I realize now that what I loved about these books, in addition to how beautiful these athletes’ movements were, was the obvious amount of dedication and love that these kids were putting into their work. I loved the thought of my job being to do something beautiful over and over until it became even more beautiful.

(“A Very Young Dancer” was also my introduction to ballet, of course. I didn’t get to take lessons until I was in my 30s, but what can I say, the book worked.)

As an adult, I went back and wondered what became of these kids. Google told me.

York probably had the most conventional path in life. After the events of the book, she was invited to train at an Olympic gym. Although that was once her dream, she turned it down on the grounds that she felt satisfied with what she had already accomplished and did not want it to consume her life. Today she is a photographer and has, as far as I can tell, no links to gymnastics.

Athletically speaking, Healy was by far the most successful of the three. She wanted to be a ballet dancer herself. She also entered SAB and danced the Nutcracker lead in 1978 and 1979. (I have not been able to stop wondering: did she and Stephanie ever meet? Stephanie’s book came out in 1976, so I suspect they just missed each other.) I have seen Healy called a child prodigy in both skating and ballet. I don’t know about skating, but I’d agree about ballet–check out these videos of her dancing at age 10 and at age 13. I’ve seen pre-professional students who don’t have her quality of movement. Her command of movement and port de bras makes me want to weep.

Healy won a handful of international ballet competitions and when she was merely 15, joined the English National Ballet as a principal dancer. That’s the kind of thing I’d say was too unrealistic for a story. Today she teaches ballet and I think also skating. I’m honestly a little surprised that she isn’t more famous. Just imagine if she’d been born in the Instagram era.

What about the actual very young dancer? Although her book inspired a generation of girls to take up ballet, Stephanie’s dance career was over just after it began. Despite having danced the lead in Nutcracker, she was, to be blunt, kicked out of SAB just a few years later. It’s not really clear why, and anyone who knew has long since passed. That said, what evidence remains does suggest that she was not progressing as quickly or as well as her teachers would have liked. As one might imagine, it was a shock going from a literal poster child for ballet to being booted from a famous ballet school. Stephanie now lives in Wyoming, in a life as far removed from ballet as possible. (And if you didn’t believe me when I said that this book was popular, well, I hope the fact that a New York Times article focuses on her after-story is convincing. That, and the mention that superstar Wendy Whelan got inspired to dance from the book.)

I went back to the books to see if there was any hint of these outcomes–any seeds of the future–in the children’s own words about themselves. It’s easy to read too much into these things, but one thing I noticed what that York and Healy come across as more serious and, well, professional in their books. Unlike Stephanie, they discuss technique in their narration, which implies a deeper level of understanding and ownership of their work.

That’s probably far too much tea-leaf-reading to apply to the words of 10-year-old kids, but it does align with what I know to be true. If you want to succeed at the highest levels, you pretty much have to be your own coach. Of course it helps to have piles of wealth and privilege and the world’s best teachers behind you (as all three girls did), but even then, they can’t do it for you.

A bigger issue is probably that, at least according to her interview decades later, Stephanie didn’t actually enjoy ballet enough to progress in it as a career. She said that classes were laborious and unpleasant. I’ve heard the same … from professional dancers. You’re going to have shit days. There is no job in the world with no shit days.

None of this is to judge Stephanie in a bad light. Shit days are much harder to deal with when you are 10 than when you are 30, unless you are one of those preternaturally mature children (I have the feeling that York and Healy both were). I am only sad that she didn’t get to discover for herself that ballet was probably not her calling, and that the choice was ripped away from her so abruptly and quasi-publicly. As a child, it must have been enormously difficult to process.

I suppose all that is to say: for all that I idolized these girls, and for all that society loves to fawn over stories of successful children, there are benefits to being a grown-up. Like maturity. Perspective. Context. Fantasies aside, I would never have been able to handle being a professional ballet dancer at 15 or training for the Olympics at 12.

I once heard a successful older woman who runs her own business say that that professional success comes for you when you are truly ready for it. While that flatten a lot of aspects, for me, I find that it has been overwhelmingly true. So I hope that we can all have, and take, the time that we need to get on our own paths, Very Young or not.

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E&M and Electromagicians

four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell
Four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell, who is absent from “The Homunculi’s Guide.” Images from U.S. Patent Office via Google Patents.

A couple of weeks in, it still boggles me to think that “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” is out there in the world.

This is probably the most “me” story I have ever written. Not so much “write what you know” as “write what you obsess about.” One such obsession is electricity and magnetism–the physics discipline–which is often abbreviated as E&M. This discipline is heavy on the math, but the applications of the math are immediate and powerful. If you can solve this equation, then you can explain why electricity does that thing but not the other thing. Therefore, theoretically speaking, if you can set up your equations correctly, then you can tell electricity what to do, and when, and how.

To me, those equations have always felt pretty close to casting a magic spell: you can use a simple thought, a trick of your brain, to shape the world around you.

In real life, you have to actually put together your theoretical machine. But what if there was a kind of magic where having a sufficiently deep understanding of the theory was enough to make the theoretical become real?

That thought is where the magic system in “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” started. Of course, it ended up going significantly beyond “magical physics,” but I hope that it retains some grounding in those concepts.

Although the story is fictitious, I invoked a number of real-life scientists, because I am not nearly creative enough to make up laws of physics that are weirder than the ones that already exist in our universe. And also because I admire the immense amount of work that went into their discoveries, which continue to shape our existence.

So if you will indulge me, I’d like to talk a little about the scientists that I referenced in the story, who helped describe the magic physics system that we actually live in. And because I cannot resist the urge, I’m also throwing in my headcanon about what they did in the Homunculi ’verse.

In order of birth year:

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) was an incredibly influential mathematician. At 21, he published a landmark book on number theory. And he didn’t stop there. His name is attached to many, many, many concepts. These come to mind first: the Gaussian (aka “normal”) distribution in statistics, the Gaussian blur in your image processing program of choice, and not one but two of the equations in Maxwell’s Equations. The list could go on for quite a while.

While most of his work was of the theoretical variety, he applied his mathematical abilities to fields like astronomy, geography, and of course physics. In 1833, Gauss collaborated on building an early version of a telegraph. Today there is a replica of this machine at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

Gauss was a bit of a jerk, though: according to a grandson, Gauss “did not want any of his sons to attempt mathematics for he said he did not think any of them would surpass him and he did not want the name lowered” … well, he certainly lowered himself in my estimation with that sentiment.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Gauss made his name entirely in the scientific realm. But his children became well-known magicians in their own right. In particular, his daughter Therese became a famous electromagician.

Michael Faraday (1791–1867): a bookbinder’s apprentice who taught himself physics from the books that he bound, he went on to experimentally discover many fundamental principles of electromagnetism.

No slouch in the innovation department, Faraday invented useful things like the Faraday Cage, which is that metal mesh covering microwave doors. This mesh, poetically speaking, traps the electromagnetic dance that goes on inside a microwave whereby a frozen burrito gets nuked. As a result, said electromagnetic dance does not radiate outside and nuke your face.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Faraday invented the Faraday Ward, which traps electric spirits inside any mathematically defined closed surface. He also developed and formulated theories on how to store magical forces. The Farad, a unit named in his honor, describes the ability of various mediums–aether, quartz, bottle gourds and so on–to store magical energy, be they electrical or otherwise. Faraday was the first to study this quality experimentally. For this achievement, Faraday is venerated by all magicians.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879): best known for the eponymous Maxwell’s Equations. These are four foundational mathematical equations that showed that electricity, magnetism, and light are all different manifestations of the same thing: electromagnetism.

That may sound bland but it has very far-ranging implications. Maxwell’s Equations can describe (the electromagnetic component of) how an MRI images your brain, how power plants generate electricity, and how signals travel down coaxial cables to bring you this blog post.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Maxwell was an early electromagician who tried … and failed spectacularly to show that all types of magic are related to a fundamental magical force. However, in the process, he did come up with his three Maxwell’s Electromagical Equations, which state and formulate the following:

  • Gauss’s Law of Radiative Souls: Human souls produce electromagical fields. The electromagical flux across a closed surface is proportional to the amount of soul enclosed.
  • Faraday’s Law of Flux: Souls that fluctuate in time produce electromagical fields.
  • Ampère’s Law of Currents: Non-magical electromagnetic phenomena, when applied to souls, produce electromagical fields.

Note that Maxwell’s four Equations of electromagnetism also exist in the Homunculi ’verse. Any competent electromagician must master both sets.

Also note that the Gauss referenced here is Therese.

Maxwell also posited that spirits can be communicated with by means of radio waves. He was correct, though he did not live to find out. Nor did he leave any homunculi behind.

Tivadar Puskás (1844–1893): a Hungarian inventor who, among other things, came up with the first telephone exchange. An exchange is basically that switchboard you see in retro photographs, where you have rows and rows of operators (usually women) manually connecting phone calls. Today, these functions are carried out automatically by machines.

To be honest I wish I knew more about him. Wikipedia’s article certainly makes it look like he lived a very interesting life.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Puskás is revered as the closest thing that the homunculi have to a god. The telephone exchange opened the door to the dark world inside the wires, and Puskás gave that door a very hard kick.

Max Planck (1858–1947) is famous for being one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. While working for commercial electricity utility companies, Planck tried to calculate the energy emitted by light bulbs. That turned out to be a much more complex problem than one might imagine. Long story short, the only way Planck could make the math work was to propose that light itself existed in little “packets” of energy–indivisible units, somewhat like atoms. He was right, and today we call these packets photons. He received a Nobel Prize for this work.

The “Planck second” referenced in my story is the amount of time that it takes light to travel a certain distance (derived from a handful of other constants). It is an incredibly small amount of time–5.39 × 10 −44 s. In fact, it is, in a sense, the smallest unit of time. Below that amount of time, the concept of time itself has no meaning due to quantum mechanics.

In the framework of the Big Bang theory, by the way, it took one Planck second to go from the beginning of … everything … to the beginning of the universe as we know. We may never know what that first Planck second was like.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Planck was the first to take a stab at calculating the energy and dimensionality of the human soul. While he had no notion of the homunculi, Planck did theorize that there existed a quantum unit of the smallest amount of energy possible in a human soul. He was correct.

Kikyou Tachibana did not exist in our world, but if you will indulge me one last time …

In the Homunculi ’verse, Tachibana (1924-?) was a very successful developer of integrated circuit technologies. After selling all three of her companies, Tachibana retired early and became interested in electromagic. She joined an institution for magical studies, where she made a number of contributions to the practice before her mysterious disappearance at the age of 74* in 1998. She is, of course, best known for coining the name “homunculi” to describe telecommunications ghosts.

*Tachibana was, although no one ever knew it, the first person to figure out how to join the homunculi. Which she promptly did, out of sheer curiosity, but of course she could not return. Her homunculi have long forgotten who they used to be.

If you actually read all this way, thank you, and I hoped that was somewhat entertaining and/or educational. Oh, and may the electric gods bless you and your internet connection today.

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Friday Fictions: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This week’s Friday Fiction is “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine. I want to thank @superyarn for cluing me into this book. She did so by first recommending Martine’s short story “The Hydraulic Emperor,” which was so cool that it made me want to read “A Memory Called Empire.”

By the way, if you’ve already read one story, I think you would probably like the other. Both feature poetic and Borgesian turns of phrase and an aesthetic that I think of as cyberpunk Byzantium (Martine is a historian of the Byzantine Empire). Their aims are quite different though–Hydraulic Emperor is an incisive thought experiment that instantly put me in mind of a William Gibson/KJ Parker mashup, except with aliens.

Whereas Memory is a gorgeous sprawl of space-opera-as-political-thriller. What surprised me was how much it luxuriated in every beat of the plot. The story never rushes, even during scenes where characters are dying. The bulk of the plot–flashbacks notwithstanding–takes place over a couple of sleepless days, which you wouldn’t guess from the sheer mass of the book. Which you also wouldn’t guess from the e-book (which is the version that I bought, because living abroad discourages the purchase of paper books), because the engine of the story flowed so frictionlessly that I was never tired or bored or anything but gently propelled from one page to the next.

Speaking of plots. Lsel Station is an independent world near the enormous and enormously influential Teixcalaanli Empire, which spans multiple star systems. When said empire abruptly requests a new ambassador from Lsel–without disclosing what happened to the previous ambassador, Yskander, who had been there for decades–Mahit Dzmare is chosen for the role.  She must go to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s capital city-planet and try to untangle the situation, not to mention survive.

Fortunately, or so Mahit thinks, she will have help in the form of an imago: a chip surgically implanted into her brainstem that carries the knowledge and personality of her predecessor. It’s not another person in your body. It’s more akin to the Trill/Symbiont situation from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, only the Symbiont is another member of your own species.

Naturally, the imago promptly malfunctions when Mahit, and the ghost of Yskander, face their first crisis. Now Mahit can only rely on herself … and the Teixcalaanli people around her. Who consider her rather a credit to her inferior culture.

This sets up Mahit’s primary internal conflict. On the one hand, she knows that Lsel is always in danger of being swallowed up by the ever-hungry empire. On the other hand, she loves consuming the empire’s culture: its language, its names, its popular culture.

And through Mahit’s point of view, we experience the gorgeous culture. The capital planet is a lush and golden place where you may dine on stuffed flowers (plus or minus poison), where jewel-colored birds dance in vertical gardens, where the emperor sits on a sunburst throne of golden spears.

(A brief aside. Although Lsel’s technology is far more important to the plot, and the #Teixcalaanli #Aesthetic is generally about being lush and beautiful and quite literally organic (Mahit says at one point that Lsel station doesn’t have many animals), there is one very important bit of Teixcalaanli that is technological: their capital city is run on algorithms. The subways are fully automatic based on traffic patterns, and–anxiety of our times–the city’s police force, the Sunlit, are an unholy fusion of people and AI into a collective mind. They are literally faceless and indistinguishable behind their identical gold masks. The algorithms governing their actions are said to be flawless and impersonal, but the text reminds us that no algorithms are. Very au courant.)

Even Teixcalaanli names are gorgeous: they are mathematical poetry. We meet Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, et al. Speaking of poetry, the Teixcalaanli cultured elite communicates through poetry to an extent that is, in my opinion, only matched by Chinese palace dramas.

There is a scene where Mahit watched several Teixcalaanli natives spontaneously play with poetry forms, and she realizes that even though she has studied their language and culture all her life, she doesn’t have that skill. And she is pulled apart on the inside between wanting to have that skill and being ashamed of having that want. Because the Teixcalaanli Empire are colonizers who would swallow her world whole. Because to Teixcalaanli citizens, she is and will always be a barbarian who cannot compose such verses, who does not have that native fluency in language and cultural understanding.

This was the part where I fell in love with Mahit. Because I know that immigrant feeling all too well, even though we have experienced vastly different aspects. The major difference between us–other than her ambassadorial status–is that I applied for citizenship. I joined the empire. (No regrets. But that’s a different blog post.)

SFF is full of empires, because empires have power and power makes for stakes and stakes make for plot (YMMV; I’m being general here). What’s interesting to me about “A Memory Called Empire” is that Mahit, an outsider, is helping to stabilize the Empire. You don’t see this a whole lot. You get overthrowing the monarchy and restoring the rightful heir and so on, but rarely do you get a protagonist who decides that the only winning move is not to play.

At the end–mild spoiler alert–Mahit gets to ask for whatever she wants from the Empire. She asks to be allowed to go home before the Empire can conquer her, too. In a book full of politicking and rebellion and murder, it’s a zen moment when she seizes back her destiny. She knows that in a day, a week, a month, a year–she could get recalled anytime–but in the meantime, she is home.

I think the part of the fantasy that grabs me the most isn’t even how gorgeous the Teixcalaanli Empire is, but that Mahit both wants to go home and has a home that she loves to go to. My home is different now, and I’m happy enough with it, but I am very slightly envious of Mahit. Only very slightly, because who knows what will happen in Book Two, which I have preordered! (Well, book one set up a future plot involving aliens so I imagine the payoff will come, or start to come, in book two).

But in the meanwhile, I would like to imagine myself there on Lsel Station, in spirit, to welcome Mahit home.

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Friday Fictions: The “Wizard of Oz” series by L. Frank Baum

This week’s Friday Fiction is the “Wizard of Oz” series–the portion by L. Frank Baum. I don’t mean that I dislike the books written by other authors, but rather that I’ve never read any of them.

All are free to read at Project Gutenberg.

I find it impossible to sum up the series because the books are so different from each other, but they’re mostly fantasy adventures of Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas, who gets transported to the wacky magical Land of Oz. Over the course of the stories she becomes a Princess, makes loads of friends, solves magical problems, and so forth. They’re written for kids but you can find political/socio/economic jabs in there if you’re paying attention.

I think most Anglo readers encounter the first book, the musical, or the movie through cultural osmosis by age 10. The first book, while very fun, is very different thematically from the rest of the books. Which is probably why I didn’t know until I was a teen that there was a whole series after! Baum essentially expands on the world of Oz and its magical inhabitants and all their weird adventures.

It must have helped that Baum was untroubled by the notions of “continuity” and “consistency” and pretty freely either retconned or wholesale ignored contradictory bits in his earlier books as he went on. He also, like Doyle, attempted to can the series at one point but was convinced to retcon that as well after a massive outpouring of written protest from kids.

As a kid, what I loved about the books was the completely nutters “magic” “system” of Oz, which was basically whatever tf Baum felt like making up–BUT he apparently had occasional fits of fans-arguing-on-the-internet levels of specificity:

“The very fact that Dorothy lived in Oz, and had been made a Princess by her friend Ozma, prevented her from being killed or suffering any great bodily pain as long as she lived in that fairyland. She could not grow big, either, and would always remain the same little girl who had come to Oz, unless in some way she left that fairyland or was spirited away from it. But Dorothy was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or “destroyed” in other ways by evil magicians, were she not properly protected.”

I also must say that I wouldn’t have liked it half as much without the gorgeous illustrations of John R. Neill, whose Ozma went through several evolutions to become a Gibson Girl swathed in impossibly, gorgeously flowy robes. I don’t actually like Ozma that much as a person or a ruler, but she is one of my Princess Aesthetics Ideals. It influenced me hugely (right up there with Sailor Moon!) as a scribbling teenager. In fact, looking back, the fact that the series was so girl-centric is probably a large reason that I loved it so much. There are a number of dudes in the books but they’re … honestly … mostly set-dressing. Girls do the majority of the fighting and the magic.

As an adult, I still enjoy everything above–especially the art–but when I do a reread, I find myself interested in the fairly unvarnished ways that his brains made it into the books. For instance, in The Road to Oz, the Tin Woodman goes on a rant about how money does not exist in Oz and is a terrible thing (one wonders how he would know that, if money didn’t exist in Oz …) and we should all be making transactions with love and kindness. And in a later book, Baum has Ozma (who is quite magically powerful, although insistently not ALL-powerful) deliver a lecture about how life would be pointless and sad if you had everything magically come to you and that the only joy in life is serving others and making their lives better.

Whatever you think of those two opinions, Baum held some indisputably shitty ones. He wrote two very nasty pieces about Native American genocide. Like, even for the time, I think they were astonishingly awful. I wouldn’t say this really comes through in the books, but there is a pretty stark omission of non-white shades of skin, whether it’s for the humans or the fairies.

And on a far pettier note, it always annoyed me that Ozma outlawed the practice of magic other than for herself, Glinda, and the Wizard. It rather seems pointless when the entire land of Oz is … magical … and seems unnecessarily hierarchical when you’ve got an essentially socialist country. But I guess if everyone can have an emerald the size of a sofa in their living room, then you need something to distinguish the ruler …

But you know what, we can do better. In fact I like to think that Baum predicted that we would. Here is a quote from his foreword to The Emerald City of Oz:

Perhaps I should admit on the title page that this book is “By L. Frank Baum and his correspondents,” for I have used many suggestions conveyed to me in letters from children. Once upon a time I really imagined myself “an author of fairy tales,” but now I am merely an editor or private secretary for a host of youngsters whose ideas I am requested to weave into the thread of my stories.

These ideas are often clever. They are also logical and interesting. So I have used them whenever I could find an opportunity, and it is but just that I acknowledge my indebtedness to my little friends.

My, what imaginations these children have developed! Sometimes I am fairly astounded by their daring and genius. There will be no lack of fairy-tale authors in the future, I am sure.

About that, he was certainly correct.

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Friday Fictions: “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge

This week’s Friday Fiction is the terrifying and beautiful “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

You know the Rilke quote, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”? This. This is what he was talking about.

So let’s jump into the plot. Zéphine is the crown princess of Retrouvailles, a nation guarded by an army of magical unicorns who have a contract with the queen, the Reine-Licorne. Zéphine, whose title is Demoiselle la Plus Pure, must perform the unicorn dance on her nineteenth birthday, when she begins to look for a suitor. And at the unicorn dance, she presents a suitor to the army of unicorns. If they like him, the two can wed and one day Zéphine will become the new Reine-Licorne. If they don’t approve … they run the man through on their horns. Repeat every full moon.

That’s a pretty good taste of the aesthetics of this story. And it only escalates from there, and I loved every bloody minute of it.

I love stories that takes the beautiful and make it terrifying. In fact, l generally love stories with a little bite to them. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the occasional happy ending where everyone wins, but my favorite stories all have some sort of sacrifice. Some sort of unfathomable choice being made. I’m sure this speaks volumes about myself and my worldview.

(Or, let’s bring in guest lecturer Edward Elric: “A lesson without pain is meaningless. For you cannot gain anything without sacrificing something else in return, but once you have overcome it and made it your own, you will gain an irreplaceable fullmetal heart.”)

And this is true of the story. Zéphine loses everything she loves over the course of the story, but she does gain something too: self-determination. In the beginning of the story, she’s hating herself for being too weak to commit suicide. By the end of the story, she’s surveying the wreckage of her life and kingdom and helping rebuild both. And she is willing to fight for herself. Bleed for her people. And the others around her learn from her lesson as well, and take their own steps. She has a hard-won, clear-eyed understanding of her world and how to work within it. She doesn’t hide from the beautiful terror; she embraces it and makes it her own.

Long live Zéphine, la Reine-Licorne.

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Friday Fictions: “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

Today, Friday Favorites returns under a new name: Friday Fictions.

And since I recently moved to Switzerland, we’ll make it topical: this week the book is “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. The book was written in German; I read an English translation. It’s free to read online at Project Gutenberg (English, German).

This book was apparently once a classic of Western kid lit but I didn’t read it until a few months ago on a whim. It turns out to be very Swiss, and very charming if you like the trinity of God, Nature, and Dairy Products.

So, the plot! Heidi is an orphan who has been raised by Dete, the sister of her dead mother. Dete has a chance at a new job but can’t bring a child with her, so she drops Heidi off with Heidi’s grandfather on a mountaintop.

The grandfather is known far and wide to be a crank, and the village gossip network scolds Dete all the way down the mountain. Fortunately for Heidi, grandfather takes to her very well. Plus Heidi is basically a five year old manic pixie, so I suppose Dete didn’t do too bad a job. She has a fantastic time with her grandfather, his goats, Peter the goat boy, and living on bread and milk and cheese (SO much cheese toast), and enjoying the great outdoors.

But then Heidi turns eight and Dete takes her off the mountain to be a lady’s companion to Clara, a young girl with unnamed but serious health problems. Clara’s family is ROLLING IN IT. The housekeeper is none too pleased at the thought of basically a mountain goat of a girl who can’t read or write being a companion for the young miss.

“Mercy upon us! you do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeier, greatly horrified. “Is it possible—not able to read? What have you learnt then?”

“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching SWISS truthfulness.

Heidi and Clara become great friends, which eventually leads to Clara going to Switzerland and the whole gang coming together. And then A Miracle Occurs, of the same type that The Secret Garden invokes at its end.

Like I said, this book is VERY SWISS. To begin with, it is obsessed with nature and God. Like there’s a literal repentance scene and a whole Prodigal Son arc with the Grandfather. The Swiss are less obsessed with God these days but let me tell you, those two things are still your only options on a Sunday, unless you drag yourself to a Hauptbahnhof. In case you are wondering, public transit does run on those days. Gotta convey you up those mountains and/or to church somehow.

The nature comes, well, naturally. There are pages and pages about the grass, the flowers, the fields, the trees, the wind, the snow … and it’s accurate, too. Spyri wasn’t making it up. OTOH God drops in seemingly at random points in the text, swooping in here and there to be given credit for this or that development.

The book is also, as you may expect, heavy on the dairy. Not for nothing is there a Heidi brand of milk.

Now for the famous wheelchair bit. Before I read the book, this was the only thing I vaguely knew about the plot. For the uninitiated (spoiler alert? although the book was published in 1881): Clara needs to use a wheelchair when Heidi meets her. When Clara goes to Switzerland to visit Heidi, she starts to get stronger and healthier from Nonstop Dairy. Grandfather starts giving her very light PT, holding her up while encouraging her to put some weight on her feet.

Then, Peter the goat boy gets really jealous of Clara spending all this time with Heidi and shoves the wheelchair down the mountain. Later on, Peter (IMO) totally gets what’s coming to him, but in the meanwhile, Heidi gets Peter to help her give Clara more PT, supporting her while having her try to walk, and over the course of months, Clara eventually does become able to walk, although at the end we still see that she needs to lean on Heidi.

If one were inclined to give a charitable explanation to this, one could say Clara was suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency, which eating healthy food in the mountains was able to reverse. If one weren’t, then it’s a miraculous cure steeped in dairy-fueled ableism. I’m not in a position to make that judgement.

But there’s something I am in a position to say something about. I found myself unexpectedly thinking over and over about the character of Dete, Heidi’s aunt. She actually isn’t there very often but is responsible for kicking most of the plot into action. The text is on the side of Dete being a selfish person, first for leaving Heidi with Grandfather so that she can have a job, and then for dragging Heidi to Frankfurt as child labor. I don’t dispute that those weren’t kind actions. But I keep thinking, what choices did Dete feel like she had? She is a servant at the mercy of capricious rich employers. Her parents are dead and her only living relation is an uncle who is literally a hermit with two goats living in a mountain shack. And she can’t have a child with her while she works. Living in righteous poverty with a child is still living in poverty, and that’s not some kind of noble decision. Poverty is bad for kids! Trying to secure a financial future for Heidi as well as herself is not cruelty in and of itself. Dete is by no means a saint, but I feel a little uncomfortable that the text casts her in a bad light for wanting to make some freaking money to support herself and her sister’s child.

Of course, Dete ultimately succeeds, in that by the end of the story, Clara’s family loves Heidi so much that they consider her one of the family and will provide for her once Grandfather passes on. And the book makes an anvil out of the religious idea that God can turn bad things into good things, so you could consider that another instance of the same point. By that point Dete has pretty much vanished from the text so I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that I will always come down on the side of giving women more choice in their lives. Ende.

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The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts

I’m so happy to say that my story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts”, is out today in both audio and text form at Escape Pod!

What if every time someone sends a text or an email or even a fax, a little bit of their soul goes off with the message?

And what if that someone dies, and you desperately want to bring them back to life, no matter what the cost?

Then you better get cracking on those physics textbooks, because in this story, the laws of electrons are the laws of magic. And electrons are entangled with souls …

This story contains: life, death, love, sacrifice, linear algebra, electricity & magnetism, particle physics, and a very small smattering of quantum mechanics. You know, all the usual Kara obsessions.

Of note, the audio is narrated by the amazing Katherine Inskip, whom I was lucky enough to meet at Worldcon in Dublin. If she had delivered my college physics lectures, I might have gone to more of them.

As the Homunculi say: Thank you for reading. Or listening!

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Worldcon 2019: Scribblings

I almost didn’t go. At some point in 2019 the Dublin government quite understandably put in some new regulations on AirBnBs in Dublin. I was one of many people unceremoniously booted from their reservations. I had at this point bought a full membership but not booked plane tickets. I was also going solo, and going through some personal stuff, and just thinking about Worldcon made me want to curl up in a ball. And so staring at the cancelled booking I thought, well, that’s a sign …

… and then I got the acceptance email from Escape Pod, which was both my first pro sale and my first sale of any kind in years, and I thought, that’s a bigger sign! (It was.)

So I booked new accommodations and Swiss Air tickets*, and I am super glad that I went. I had a fantastic time!

I attended with the mindset of “I’m here to make new friends” which is sometimes tough because I am an introvert, but one thing that helped me be quite social the entire time is that I had just come off two solid, exhausting weeks of stay-at-home-parentdom and I was DYING for grown-up conversation.

I arrived later Thursday afternoon and after registering, I wandered around the Convention Centre Dublin feeling quite lost–I had made a few plans to meet people but they were all for Friday or later–and then I remembered that SFWA had a reception going on. Which I only knew about/could attend because the Escape Pod sale qualified me for membership. (A sign.)

I later heard that past receptions weren’t always so well attended but this one was great. There was finger food (awesome because I hadn’t eaten for hours), free drinks with and without alcohol (I had two glasses of red wine and some water), and a good number of people. Some of whom are now Facebook friends! I also met some people I had only seen before on Twitter and they turned out to be awesome. All of them. I personally didn’t meet a single jerk at Worldcon.

After the reception and an impromptu dinner off-site, those with more energy and perhaps more jet lag returned to CCD, but I went to my accommodations (I got a dorm room at Hashtag Dublin), did some barre exercises while hanging on to my windowsill, and then slept quite well. It turns out it’s lovely to travel close to your time zone.

Friday afternoon I attended a live Escape Pod recording, which was really cool to experience. I also met the narrator of my story! After that I met some friends in the hotel bar. This was awesome not only because the bar had IPAs, which I have been missing really hard living in Lager Land, but because they introduced me to some more awesome people. I meant to hit a 3 PM panel on neuroscience but, ah, was too busy talking, oops. I made plans with a new Codex acquaintance (also was able to join Codex because of the sale–a sign), to get dinner. We later walked back to the CCD together where she attended the concert, and I went back to my hotel room to do more barre and rest up.

Saturday morning began with the Codex breakfast meetup. I had woken up pretty early and already eaten so I just brought coffee and chatted with loads of awesome people. Then I went to Ballet Áthas for a wonderful adult beginner ballet lesson–more on that in a separate post. After that I tried to get lunch with others but had missed the boat because it was already 2:30 pm. Understandable. I ate a chocolate muffin and then went to a panel on going from fandom to prodom (featuring a hilarious story about a BBC interview) followed by a panel on tales from the laboratory (featuring too many hilarious stories to count but my favorite was the “Johnson’s Leap” at the Observatory). It also reminded me to finish reading “Excuse Me, Sir, Would You Like To Buy A Kilo Of Isopropyl Bromide?” (free pdf featuring absolutely hair-raising stories about chemistry in the pre-EPA/OSHA days, told by a very funny narrator, although beware period attitudes toward women)

I tried to hunt down dinner after that but forgot Dublin is in Europe, so everything closed at 5. With M I was able to hunt down some pita pockets at a convenience store near The Point. We ate on the way back to the CCD where I attended one reading and M attended at least two. I was fortunate enough to chat with the author afterwards.

I then went back to my room to prep for leaving early Sunday morning. I planned to take a bus to the airport, I was out of cash, and I hadn’t bought an extra Leap Visitor Pass. So I went to an ATM … to find that I hadn’t brought my debit card. (I’d been using credit card this whole time.) After a brief panic, I then went to buy a Leap card and loaded it up with 15 euros using my credit card. Feeling good about myself, I went to sleep.

The next day, the bus DID NOT COME. I huddled with 7 other people waiting and waiting … and then a random bus whose number was not on the bus stand showed up. We shrugged and went in. And I found out they did not take Leap cards. And I had no cash. They only took contactless cards–very fortunately, I had my shiny new Swiss credit card on me, so I made it to the airport. I had no problems flying home, in apparent contrast to TONS of people.

This was my second Worldcon and I spent most of it thinking “ah, this is why people go to conventions, I must do more of these …” We’ll see what the budget has room for. But right now, I am just grateful for the wonderful experience that Worldcon 2019 was.

I was too busy unpacking to stream the awards when I returned but it was so awesome to wake up to see the news. So many congratulations to all the winners, but of course I have a special spot in my heart for the AO3 win, because I am one of the many people who sharpened their skills in fanfic before making the leap. But that’s a story for another day.

* Have I mentioned that I moved to Zürich in August, which is one of the many reasons that things are in disarray in my life? And my apartment?

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Story Sale Announcement

Photograph by Bucketsofsnow. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

I am super happy and mildly in disbelief to announce that I’ve sold a short story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts,” to Escape Pod. This is my first ever sale to a SFWA professional market, so, I’m kind of quietly imploding. The story features souls lurking in telephone lines and magical electromagnetism*, and will hopefully appear sometime in fall 2019.

*My research for this story consisted of pulling out my college E&M and quantum textbooks, which I somehow still have. It’s good to know that the very expensive education I received finally went to an appropriate use.

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