About Bryn

Writer, Australia, ex-UK. I've been quietly at work on my historical fiction about 12th and 13th-century Mongols since 2003. It's my main occupation/obsession. Before that, I spent years on a creative translation of Beowulf (unfinished) and wrote science fiction. Keen on: walks by the sea, where I live. Baroque opera, Shostakovich, David Bowie. Books, old and a few new. Doctor Who and Star Trek: Discovery.

Invent No Evil: hopepunk history

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.”  

 

For me, the above short message (sent on Tumblr) is self-explanatory. I had for years pulled faces, quietly, at grimdark, and ‘hopepunk’ is a fabulous name for its antidote. If you need more, the originator of the word wrote a blog post: One atom of justice by fantasy novelist Alexandra Rowland.

Grimdark has no room for human improvement. Hopepunk, by Rowland’s explainer, scarcely believes in improvement – it isn’t ‘noblebright’ where the world can be set right, but in spite of that, it’s activist.

My fiction practice is activist. An example that I care about: execution.

Mongols have a reputation for a cut-his-head-off approach to justice. They even had back then, when ‘to punish in the way of Chinggis Khan’s Jasaq’ meant a capital punishment. At once I have to tell you two items of information to mitigate this impression. One is, over the course of Mongol history punishments inclined towards fines. Another is, when in government in China the Mongols greatly reduced (or simplified) the preexistent list of capital crimes. [1]  Even so, execution was a visible feature of life and in my story of the rise of Tchingis Khan I had frequent close encounters with execution to write about. How does a grimdark author write about executions, and how does a hopepunk?

A hopepunk author who hates capital punishment today (me) won’t let go to waste those ‘mitigations’ I mentioned. Behind a trend towards fines, there must have been sentiments, attitudes, people who didn’t like execution altogether. A hopepunk author notices an extraordinary reluctance to execute known individuals in the Secret History of the Mongols. A hopepunk author is fascinated by the information that Mongols considered it a cruelty to let a sentenced person wait for death.

Unlike Texas today, where you can wait on death row for years. Are you astonished to hear that 13th century Mongols have a critique of present-day execution in Texas on grounds of inhumanity? You shouldn’t be. Medieval Europe also offers critiques of modern indifference, if you look for them, if you want to write about them. Grimdark doesn’t want to: grimdark paints it black, and Grimdark Genghis is ‘ruthless’, ‘merciless’ – adjectives demonstrably untrue, but nailed onto his name in grimdark history. Grimdark fiction (and I have a certain fiction in mind), makes up execution practices, as hideous as possible, and presents them as ‘steppe culture’.

Aside from the demonisation of steppe culture, what does this do, what does this contribute to? It lowers our expectations for humans; it leads us to think, when our ‘civilizations’ are stripped away, this is what we are. Dystopian SF or barbarian HF: the grimdarks of both teach this lesson.

In the hopepunk camp myself, I think the lesson is untrue. Both camps can dig up evidence, of course, and frankly, I’m persuaded it’s a matter of temperament, where you sit. I won’t convert a grimdarker with my little pieces of evidence about the humanity of Mongols, or Vikings, or us after the breakdown of society in the imminent apocalypse.

I use execution as an example because no author has been more influential on me than Dostoyevsky, and his own close call with execution often turns up in his fiction. He describes the psychological cruelty of a wait for execution. His descriptions are what Mongols saw and knew, when execution was so near at hand and not removed from public view. In Europe at the same time, we probably think of public spectacle and ghoulish crowds. In the midst of this, though, I am only the more struck by accounts of times when a crowd decided to be sorry for the criminal instead, and made a great emotional event of their grief and sympathy. In an incident recorded by Beyhaqi, an ex-vizier is executed in the streets of Balkh, 1059. ‘The order was shouted out for people to stone him, but no-one touched a stone and everyone was weeping uncontrollably.’ Silver coins were given out to bribe ‘the rabble’ into picking up stones, but they didn’t fancy it, and the executioner had to strangle him. Perhaps it’s because I’m hopepunk that I find this a rare insight, and deeply indicative.

Hopepunk doesn’t paint it black; hopepunk searches out those chiaroscuro shafts of light. To let readers know, a crowd once in 11th century Balkh didn’t want to throw stones on instructions from the state. For a hopepunker, this is important. You’d better believe I’m going to seize on these nuggets and feature them in my fiction. When they are true.

And that’s the thing. When they are true. I have a rule, hard and fast (unusual for my rules): Invent No Evil. It feels like slander to say a person who was once alive committed a bad act I know he didn’t, or one he might be accused of in the gossip of his enemies, but can’t be convicted of. He may not have recourse to a court but I can feel his ghost, reading over my shoulder. Why would I trash the reputation of a person, even if he’s centuries dead?

To make a good story? Good for who? Not for Mongols. Not for Mongol image. I won’t make up evils so that you can think the worse of Mongols. Yes, you know it’s fiction, but fiction sticks. Fiction affects your views, and the majority of people think Mongols were pretty much as they appear in popular fiction. You know this is true.

But it’s not just about the Mongols, is it, about my chosen subject? It’s hopepunk. It’s the question: Are you hopepunk? Or are you grimdark? If you’re grimdark, pile on the evils, revel in them, invent them freely – since to you they are the truth. They are fair invention. Details are made up for the story, but the bottom line is accurate, this is the base of how humans behave.

If you’re hopepunk, it isn’t.

Invent no evil. The grimdarks do. It’s rude to quote actual examples, but you can imagine the kind of thing: cannibalisation of live enemies, etc. I’ll include every piece of evil that is well-documented in the sources, but I’ll never make evils up. I feel I have a duty to the historical people I write about, but behind that, deeper than that, in my hopepunk bones… you just wouldn’t catch me adding unnecessarily to the world’s evils, telling people this is how it is. There is evil enough in my tale without inventions. It does a disservice to the evils that took place: how can you look real evil in the face when you’ve confused the real with inventions? Hopepunk isn’t about avoidance.

Take Dostoyevsky in the House of the Dead. After his sentence to hang was commuted at the place of execution, he was sent to hang out in Siberia. A few political prisoners, gentry class, in with the serf class who were criminals. You can read about what happened to him in The House of the Dead, his documentary-novel. This is what he thought going in:

‘There are bad people everywhere, but among the bad there are always some good ones,’ I hastened to console myself. ‘Who knows? Perhaps these people are in no way worse than those outsiders, those who are outside the prison.’ I thought this and shook my head at the notion; but – God in Heaven – if only I had known then to what extent it was true!

Dostoyevsky wasn’t hopepunk when he went in. He was liberal-minded, idealistic, and ‘perhaps the convicts are as human as my outside acquaintances’ was a piety that he felt he ought to believe. It fell away quickly, once inside, and he experienced the prisoners as monsters – for years. Nearer to the end of his prison term than to its beginning, he underwent a change. He came out with a deep conviction, a kind of conversion that stuck with him for his life: that frail liberal piety he had in his head when he went in, turned out to be the actual truth. Nobody else had grasped it, he thought – none of his old acquaintance who would have mouthed the same piety, but didn’t have his lived experience of individual convicts – murderers and worse – whom at last he perceived as fully human.

Dostoyevsky is my guiding light in writing people who do evil. From the redemption of the criminal on the last page of Crime and Punishment to the round of cheers that finishes off his last book, he is unabashedly hopepunk. I’ve had several conversations with people who assume he’s grimdark, because they have heard of his dark material. No, he’s one of ours. Let me link you to a piece on his radical empathy, written by a novelist: Dostoyevsky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck.

I haven’t always had faith. I went through grimdark years fed by evolutionary psychology which I took to be the science of the day. The darkness was total, and in my anguish of spirit I reached out for Dostoyevsky, who fought tooth and nail against the unfreedoms of the science of his day. I don’t feel free in grimdark fiction; I feel trapped in a dark cell, otherwise known as its vision of humanity. Let the light in. There’s a window. Go hopepunk.

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1. see the section on ‘Law’ in Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer, Mongolia’s Culture and Society, Westview Press, 1979, pp. 353-63.

images:
red door © CaoChunhai/istock
snow leopard © Rixipix/istock

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

sale and news

My ebooks are 50% off in the Smashwords Read an Ebook Sale, March 3-9.
Find them here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/232290

In other news, I had meant to finish several posts for this blog over Jan-Feb — ‘A Bastard Art’, the other three parts of which await me in draft. But I have plunged into full-time work on Amgalant Three. I have ambitions to publish 3.1 in ebook this year or early next — if I throw side projects to the wolves.

Where side projects belong, frankly.

Status report

I owe you a report on what I’m up to.

As you saw, I gave Amgalant Three its cover and its back cover copy when we did second editions of One and Two in April. My wonderful designer Kathleen Lynch at Black Kat Design said she particularly liked the quote used for Scavenger City, so that line’s gotta stay. It was hairy writing a book description before the book is finished, but the plot’s mapped out and I have 200,000+ words raw or in the oven. I was confident to tell you the trajectory:

In the steppes of High Asia, the year 1206…

“You want me to tell His Celestial Majesty that there is a new Celestial of Sheepskins?”
“That is exactly what I want you to tell him.”

Tchingis Khan, a king in sheepskins, has positioned himself as the champion of the People in Felt Tents – of a way of life, which China wishes to abolish. Cities have scavenged on the nomads of the steppe for centuries. The crusade he unleashes turns cities into zones for scavenger birds.

Is this a war without end, the worst war? Spirits of violence drive Tchingis Khan, but a spirit of peace might stop him.

Scavenger City is the third and last in a trilogy that gives voice to the Mongols in their explosive encounter with the great world under Tchingis Khan. Both epic and intimate, Amgalant sees the world through Mongol eyes. It’s different from the world you know.

 

So when’s it due out?

The brute fact is, I can’t afford to focus entirely on Amgalant but must try to attract readers and gain sales through other work. I have been slow to face this fact. To support Amgalant with more accessible work on the side was a strategy Libbie Hawker — who has made such a success of independent publishing since — advised me to try in 2012 when she reviewed the first edition of One. I should have listened at the time, but I had my consciousness trained to live in Amgalant to the exclusion of the rest of life. The notion of ‘other books to be written’ I repudiated: I was a one-book woman. That state of concentration I achieved let me write One and Two, but didn’t let me extract myself afterwards.

However, inevitably and happily, Amgalant has thrown out lots of ideas for stories and short novels attached to the main work. I have in hand three short novels, two at advanced stages of outline and draft, to be written concurrently with Three. They share its research.

The first, that I expect to write in 2019, is set among the ‘oi irgen’ of the Secret History, the forest peoples. Readers of One and Two are familiar with the Uriangqot and the Merqot, and we meet others in Three. This first new novel is the most distant of the three from Amgalant. It’s set in the 1500s, and it’s fantasy. It’s fantasy because it’s constructed from the oral poetry of the forest peoples, whose narratives themselves are ‘fantasy’ to us, with spirits and monsters and inhuman humans. Jamuqa became a fan of the Uriangqot ‘quest’ songs when visiting Temujin in the Sacred Mountains [Against Walls, chapter 8].

Next is a historical, set in China shortly after Amgalant ends. This is about a figure whose career was only possible in the chaos of the Mongol invasion of Jin China: its working title is Sister Chaos. She became a governor for the Mongols – not the only woman governor they appointed. But she began as a commoner, a rebel against the Jin government, and the captain of a rebel army. She is historical, and spectacular, but her behaviour – including her sexual behaviour – violated basic standards, which, her chief scholar says, is why she never caught on as a popular tale, a fighting-girl hero like the fictional Mulan.

In both these short novels (short at least by Amgalant’s standards), I can explore things that are present in Amgalant but that do not belong there in-depth. My main challenge with Amgalant has always been to keep my shaggy beast shapely and not stuff too much in. To ‘stuff in’ is a property of epic but shape is crucial to any work of art or craft whatsoever. It’s actively useful to me to draw off material from Three, which is far too huge in draft. So the historical, for instance, watches the beginnings of zaju, the popular opera which exploded in the conditions of Mongol China, as a cultural fusion. The fantasy has as the main event matters of stories and spirits – and how these two are interchangeable terms – that Temujin is aware of, but that he doesn’t have time to go into as he’d like.

Three, if not lean, is more healthy for these excisions. And as a strategy, we’ll have short novels that we hope lead readers back to Amgalant. I think of them as Amgalant off-cuts. I have more lined up.

Now I’ll do a highlights of 2018. That’s easy. There were three. Three reviews.

To go with our launch of second editions, Dmitry Kosyrev, who wrote The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas and its sequels — translated into English, but better known in Russian — was kind enough to review Against Walls in the Asian Review of Books. Immense thanks to the ARB for accepting an obscure independently-published novel for review in the first place. I have since reviewed myself for the ARB (a Mongol history title; I hope to do more), and editor Peter Gordon has said he likes to bring to attention lesser-knowns; sometimes an Asian Review of Books review is the only one a book gets.

It was a thrill to have Rohase Piercy pick up a book of mine. 2018 is the year her 30th Anniversary Edition of My Dearest Holmes came out. Thirty years ago, this was a formative influence on my sister Julie and me. We were fangirling when Rohase Piercy spoke to us on our three Goodreads blogs; and then she read our work!! Again, mine — not my sister’s, who does better — is very small-time, with (let’s face the grim statistics) tiny numbers of reviews; to have bigger-fish authors validate it is a thing, and I cannot thank them enough.

Lastly, on Christmas Eve a visitor to this blog, Chris, cheered me with a review of Against Walls and Imaginary Kings. Because Chris has often left comments on my site I am allowed to feature him (Author Ethics 101: interact with readers only when they initiate). I’d like to tell him, what he ‘wishes for’ in Three is exactly what he’s getting. It is reassurance to me to have a reader ask for more, and not less, of the Temujin and Jamuqa story. I have the same view as Chris: their story is the core and the soul of my trilogy.

I have to mention too a story I had published this year in the Manifold Press anthology No Holds Bard: Modern Modern LGBTQ+ fiction inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. I seized my opportunity to write about Shakespeare’s Sonnets and what they might have meant to him. The story has an Amazon from his late play The Two Noble Kinsmen – and no doubt she was Scythian, so there is a steppe connection.

Before I go, I have a New Year’s resolution. It is: not to leave half-finished blog posts in my documents. I’ll post more often than I did last year. I have a lot sitting around.

Chinggis reception

One day — and I aim to be still alive for the event — there’ll be published a Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Chinggis Khan, to match the Reception of Alexander the Great I just saw announced (Table of Contents).

It must have 800 pages, like the Alexander. I was disappointed enough when Cambridge’s History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age came out at half the spine-width of one of its History of China volumes. Obviously my sin is envy.

I have slowly become as interested in Chinggis reception as in the history itself. Not only our reception today — his portrayal in popular and academic mediums; the study of that portrayal, its whys and wherefores, its habits and its tropes — but the history of reception. His portrayal, say, in 18th-century France and England, which is a high point (I dipped into this in my post Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century). His reception by Roger Bacon in the English 13th century, and in turn the use of Bacon and Mongols in John Cowper Powys’s 1956 novel The Brazen Head. His reception in biographies, like the one by Ralph Fox which I collected to see how a British communist in 1936 explains the Mongol conquests. (What for? Believe it or not, it sheds light on how we do. We are positioned too.) A year or two ago I outlined a vast research project on the reception of Turks and Mongols in Byzantine and Persian historians of the 11th to 13th centuries, and how the shapes they made of history might persist in centuries afterwards. And I’d love to fulfil that project, as far as I am equipped to… except my first task is the piece of reception I am writing myself: my novel.

One part of Chinggis reception that does attract attention is in modern-day China. The ‘Who owns Chinggis’ thing would be a controversial chapter in this prospective book.

No history is told straight. It is always received. And what Chinggis has been made to represent in different times and places, fascinates me. Reception history fascinates me: I collect those I find analogous, such as Emma Bridges on ‘imagining’ Xerxes and the Persian Wars. Because again, I want to see a similar for Chinggis and Mongols.

 

 

Against Walls in Asian Review of Books

I am honoured to be reviewed by novelist Dmitry Kosyrev in the Asian Review of Books.

‘I happen to know this world: I’ve been to Mongolia three times and, recently, in Russia’s Altai, which is about the same. I know that Bryn Hammond did a miracle of transporting the reader there, but I’ve no idea how she did it (that’s a real compliment from one writer to another). That’s a wolf’s world, whatever it means, a world of strange talk in strange places; it’s in fact another planet.’

“Against Walls” by Bryn Hammond

‘Based on’

A Bastard Art, part 1 of 4

‘Based on’ is a debased tag, signifying nothing. ‘Based on a true story’, etc. When I had my first inklings of a novel taken from the Secret History of the Mongols, I rejected the phrase ‘based on’. But what was I doing instead, what words can I use instead? Maybe a ‘version’: that sounds as if it is the same material cast into a different format, from 13th-century ‘epic chronicle’ to 21st-century novel. I searched for the right words, and I searched for examples, to help me articulate that which I desired to do. I didn’t want to write a ‘based on’, and for a while was at a loss for examples to follow. I needed those that re-tell a text, not just (and not necessarily) those that tell history in fiction.

My ideal was to imitate the Secret History’s features: not simply its events but its interests, its sensibilities, its storytelling tactics; to have the Secret History an artistic presence in my work. To this end, I’d treat it as true and sacrosanct in spite of its truth values being contested. In this ‘epic chronicle’ I see resistance to epic even as it draws on epic’s methods. Oral epic was prevalent when and where it was composed, straight history less so, although not unknown. It still tries to tell the truth, outrageously at times. But I found just as valuable its information on the way Mongols imagined their own story, what they told themselves, true or not. I cared about history, but I cared about the Secret History more. I was devoted to a text.

On the other hand, I didn’t feel prepared to forgo the freedoms I was used to in fiction of ‘pure imagination’. I didn’t know whether I belonged in historical fiction; its main template was at once too loose and too strict. Too strict, because I wanted to be in the equation. The Secret History spoke to me, and my need to hear wasn’t merely historical inquiry. It had things of great moment to tell me. In chase of these truths, I didn’t mean to describe only the past, nor renounce a writer’s right to talk about what matters most to me. I want elbow room, in fact I want to be a king of infinite space. The point was that I would interact with the Secret History, not efface myself. If these aims were contradictory, I didn’t worry too much: I believe in contradiction as a machine that can grind up incompatibles and make them work together.

To think about originality and inherited story, I turned to medieval romance. The Matter of Britain or the Arthur cycle, as popular now as ever in Arthurian novels; also, before they were swamped by Arthur, the Matter of Thebes, the Matter of Troy, from antiquity. The Carolingian cycle joined them, and these were the great story resources for romancers. People took up the Matter, retold old tales. But they were not afraid to be original about it. Back when I was in discovery of them (I hope this is behind us) I heard the line that medievals ‘did not prize originality as we do’. To say Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg were unoriginal in what they did with the Matter is a horribly modern mistake. We have lost the art of that common ‘Matter’; it’s make up your own plot, nowadays, and keep your hands off other people’s. Medievals held the story in common, and interpretation, exegesis, gloss were the order of the day. They wrote by their own lights, although they recycled plot. When you have a pool of writers dabbling in the Matter, perhaps you don’t feel a pressure to write the definitive version. You feel free to write your version. Isn’t idiosyncrasy encouraged? I liked the enrichment of the soil on these commons where everybody grew their own thing. I liked the knowledge of a world beyond your contribution, maintained by dead hands before you and left to future hands after you are gone. A great confused garden, joint work, where you can wander and never be bored. That sense of a commons which I found in medieval story gave me permission, somehow, to create my own patch and not be anxious about its idiosyncrasies. There was no one way to tell a story, there was no right and wrong. How unlike himself Lancelot was, yet I followed him from text to text, saintly Lancelot, bad Lancelot, indifferent Lancelot – I didn’t tire of Lancelots, when young. I know I don’t want ownership: I want to read six hundred novels about Temujin, Jamuqa and Borte, as I can on Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. None of them remotely the same. Yay individuality.

An heir, in my mind, to medieval romance is the world of fanfiction. Here too is a Matter in common, known as canon. As Chrétien, Gottfried and Wolfram wrote in the ‘universe’ of Arthur, science fiction fans write in the universe of Star Trek or Blake’s 7. I was acquainted with fanfiction that won’t change a word of canon but goes places the base material never went. Like medieval story, fanfiction is accused of unoriginality – still today, this time. But unoriginality is what I searched for at this stage, to put in opposition to a ‘based on’. That idea of canon: that nothing in the text can be altered, It Happened as on screen, and you have to find ways to write around it – to write with and not against. This is very much stricter than a typical ‘based on’ historical novel. Yet the inventiveness in fanfiction is a lesson to the original creators, cramped by their television screens. I need not fear for invention when I say the Secret History is to be my canon. I am in the position of a fan, with commitment to a text. I didn’t want to change things ‘to make a good story’. If it’s in the Secret History, it happened as the Secret History says, whether convenient for me or not.

Neither of my models were historical in the first place. Medieval ‘Matters’ had a semblance of history or were pretend histories; fanfiction grew from another fiction. That suited. I’m writing a version of the Secret History, not questioning which portions are historical and which are not. Mine was a text-to-text affair. Like fans with canon, I had a story already told, and this was unusual for historical fiction. Even if a historical novel won’t step outside the record, the record isn’t told at story-level, whereas my source (and this is why it isn’t accepted as ‘the record’) does storify, if not in the detail of science fiction television. History, by other hands, has been made into a story (in case you wonder, there is very little record outside the Secret History for the bulk of its contents). Even in periods when you have letters and diaries to work from, I don’t suppose you have a story already told. I felt nearest to those who rewrite the Iliad, with two ‘except’ clauses: that the Secret History is a set of sketches next to Homer; and that it does align itself more with history than with epic – eyewitness history, events the tellers have lived through.

What else did fanfiction teach me? Love. Unashamed love: there is not enough love for one’s material. A critical eye? Yes, but we have scarcely begun to understand the Secret History, and to understand you have to love. Criticise afterwards. Love first. I didn’t want to rip events out of the Secret History like edibles from a carcass but to hear its music, in the parts and in the whole. Perhaps I learnt to listen to my material, to listen as if my life were at stake (because fiction has that effect), desperate to catch nuance, to see the possibilities in what is said, from that ultra-close examination of what happened on the television screen. Source criticism? It starts with the ability to look and listen with the devout attention of a fan. I believe in love as a first step. Scepticism as a first step is fatal. I learnt to love my text through fanfiction. Then there is the love directed at your work. I’ll forever be inspired by fans who write for love and not for profit – by the deep conviction found in that freedom from the profit motive. Fans write because they care, and this ethos encourages original work, bold work that doesn’t have to answer to a market. They have been the unacknowledged legislators, because some fan innovations have gone mainstream.

Originality was such a fetish with me, I’d never have given up the free invention of SFF for historical with its restrictions, if not for two things. First, the Secret History was better than a story of my own invention. It’s a story novelists want to sink their teeth into, a classic story: Temujin’s conflicts with those he most loved or trusted; the ins and outs of these friendships/rivalries over time – twenty years of saga on the steppe, before he stood with its united peoples as Tchingis Khan at forty (-odd; there is a range of dates for his birth). Yes, the Secret History is short, but it is the psychological conflicts and not the physical combats that are lavishly told. Obviously the story was appreciated in its own day for the same reasons that make it dream material for a novelist. A people’s memory of unification has its idealism of high-minded common effort, and this contrasts with the off-steppe conquests that came of unity: here is scope for a tragedy. I’d never met a story that shoved the Arthur cycle aside, to claim equivalence with that love-and-conflict classic, with its tragic trajectory. I grew up on Arthur, as you can tell, and to me, the Secret History’s story was similar, different, and equal – but not so often told in English. Why invent?

Second, I saw a unique chance, a piece of luck, one that doesn’t come twice in a writer’s life. Every writer has her territory: those concerns and questions that preoccupy her as a writer, that she tackles again and again. The story in the Secret History leant itself to mine. Since at this time I was in my thirties, mine had been existent for upwards of fifteen years – I knew what I write about, but I knew restlessly, because I hadn’t managed to say it well. The Secret History came along to help me. Wolfram and Gottfried mapped their preoccupations onto the Matter, to make it ‘about’ what they were urged to write. In them I took comfort, for they did not efface themselves; indeed romance authors were known to walk into the story and account for what they did with it in first person (or fake third). I mapped onto this matter. Me, entire with my writer’s territory, onto the text as it stood. We were a match. We were a marriage made in heaven. At every point I spotted opportunities to write what I had been eager to write, to explore where I had explored before, but with its help this time. It was half-familiar and half-strange, it was a lucky chance and a challenge, it was everything I always wanted to write, it was above and beyond my ability. The week I met this story was the most exciting of my life. I felt I had only lived to offer it my services. A cooperative venture came into view.

There is an alchemy when fans give of themselves to a canon. They call them ‘transformative works’ these days; that is right, because both are transformed. There is an originality that comes from devotion, and fan writers understood this: if you put in your heart and soul, and marry them to the material, inevitably you are both changed in the result. From my time in science fiction fandom I was not afraid to be ‘unoriginal’. I did not think a waste of time to write in a universe not of my own invention. I’m aware fan work – transformative work – attracts scorn from those unacquainted with its originality, or who underestimate the derivativeness of most art. But from my time in science fiction fandom I knew there is an alchemy in interaction. Alchemy means the output is unlike either ingredient, a thing of a different order, a quality achieved that neither ingredient seems to promise. Temujin met an alchemist, Perpetual Spring, whose Daoist sect practiced an ‘internal alchemy’, transmutation within the body, that once had been an operation with chemicals and crucibles outside. That’s a nice metaphor for what I have attempted to say about fiction, and failed. Metaphors are better, because they are interactional: you can finish them off for me.

With these encouragements I took up the Matter of the Steppe, and commenced my fanfiction on the Secret History.

Next: The happy accident. A Bastard Art, part 2 of 4

Under new sails

 

 

 

Our magnificent new covers by Black Kat Design.
Click on the images to read the text.

ebooks and paperbacks out now.

ebooks from:

Amazon US, Amazon UK, or your marketplace
Smashwords and their distributors
Apple iBooks US, UK, or your country
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Paperbacks from Amazon in these marketplaces: US, UK, DE, FR, ES, IT, JP

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If you have a first edition One and want Two to match, you can contact me — I have a cupboard of the old stock. However, Three already has its cover. Here’s a look:

Scavenger City won’t be out soon. You, dear reader, can speed the process by that classic strategy of Tell Your Friends. Sales of Amgalant help me free myself from other work.

The sister art of anthropology

Another quick post. I am moved to share this New Year’s statement about What Anthropology Is. Why? As a novelist, seeking to give my readers a lived experience of a culture strange to them (let’s be ‘participant observers’ together), whose main aim, often, is to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, reasonable, and, yes, right: and so to expand our knowledge of ways of being human, our sense of possibilities for the species…  pardon me, but to this historical novelist, anthropology, above other disciplines, I feel to be my sister art. So much of this post is applicable. A novelist about the past cannot do better than contemplate the goals and ethics of anthropology.

Living Anthropologically: What is anthropology? 

Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “What is Anthropology? Critical Inquiry into the Conditions and Potentials of Human Life.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/what-is-anthropology-2017-human-life/. Posted 12 November 2017. Revised 4 January 2018.

Resources on Race and Medieval Studies

The Mongol khan meets envoys. From Rashid al-Din’s world history.

2017 was a year of urgent attention paid to race and medieval studies, with resources made for general use as well as for teachers and researchers.

I followed these projects on Twitter, which has turned out a great venue for medievalists: news, crowdsourced efforts and scholarly engagement with the public.

There is now available a bibliography, facilitated by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.
It has sections on ‘Academic publications’ and ‘Blog posts and journalism’.
Link to PDF:

Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography

Over 2017, The Public Medievalist website curated a series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. This series extended to forty posts by contributors. It is written to reach the general public, and is a great place to start on race issues. Here’s the final post of the year, from where you can browse through the subjects covered:

Race, Racism and the Middle Ages: Looking Back, Looking Forward

For those interested in medieval Mongols, it is exciting to have these resources and a new focus on race — as ‘race’ was then, and in the way we study the past today.

Humani Nihil

The moral of my story, and/or the method of my writing – it is both – from the start has been, that the 13th-century Mongols were ordinary human beings. People like you and me, in spite of my dedication to writing cultural difference. It’s rude even to say so in blunt terms: of course they were human beings, of course they were people. However, when it comes to the famous massacres, this axiom is not often the way we operate. The massacres, with the off-steppe conquests, I didn’t have to face as a writer until book Three, now underway. They were always ahead of me, and my preparation was to bring these people as close as possible to us (to me the writer and to you, the reader) – with a blind faith in the dictum of Terence:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, and think nothing human alien to me.

I was not going to ‘other’ them before the conquests that we know of. I was going to do the contrary, and test out that Terence adage, in which I have believed devoutly.

That Terence adage is beloved of humanists and those who study the humanities: I see blog posts on it in these difficult times, by the above. I remember the English/History teacher who instilled it in me. Around the same time, Dostoyevsky was teaching me the same precept (Dostoyevsky? I’ll explain with this piece on his ‘radical empathy’, a phrase rather similar: Dostoyevky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck, in the Paris Review). My teenage writing consisted of extravagant statements of this position – I tried to write great criminals from the inside (Dostoyevsky did).

And I end up, ripened as a writer and thirty years away from teenaged, with Genghis Khan. Who, before I researched greatly, was a big bogeyman, wasn’t he? And after research, he still committed those massacres. I have made you like and admire him, if you are with me thus far. We feel close to him. We’re in it together.

Over my life I have established rules for fiction. Or, I had them as teenager and they haven’t changed a jot; I can hope they have matured. Here’s a rule – probably The rule, I don’t have a big collection.

Rule One: Never write down. You can write up (still involve yourself, or risk unrealism). Never write a figure you feel is beneath you. Involve yourself, and if you can’t… your figure on the page isn’t a human being. Don’t decide to exhibit what you dislike in the world, in rationalist fashion, with tweezers and a scalpel. To be fair, in fiction, you have to be your victim; you can vivisect yourself, but nobody else, nobody whom you push to a distance. You can’t be fair that way, you can’t be true, you can’t write human beings.

That is my writing creed: there is no excuse for half-sympathy. If you have a villain, you must be that villain. It’s my (personal: I don’t say every other writer has to apply it) philosophy – no, I’d better stick with ‘creed’. Which is better than ‘rule’ too, since it’s mine and I allow that others think differently.

What if I’m writing about the worst person on the planet?

I don’t know. I’d say you need gigantic skills for that. Because your task remains the same. It sounds traumatic to me, who am not up to this. I have bitten off enough, haven’t I?

I have chosen Temujin, whom I like and admire and who committed massacres.

If you read a few heavyweight dudes on war such as John Keegan (A History of Warfare) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization), they are left sprawling about steppe warfare and make cultural explanations from a distance – speculating about why aliens do what they do. I am dissatisfied with these books, where I am not annoyed. Culture is important – too important for non-experts to offer general statements without in-depth cultural exploration. From memory (I need to refresh my memory on Gat) both hang an understanding on what is a popular ‘explanation’: the Mongols massacred the way they butchered animals. Inured to blood because they lived by heavy livestock and the hunt. This line, wherever I read it, assumes that the anthropology is the same as for a butcher in Yorkshire. It isn’t: if you say this, you must study Mongols and animals. Exhibit: Natasha Fijn, Living With Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia [Cambridge UP, 2011]:

‘Mongolian herders have a different perspective and attitude towards their herd animals compared with most views espoused in Western discourse… Mongolian herders’ attitude towards their herd animals is based on an animist perspective of the world, in which other beings are considered as persons… These belief practices are quite different from monotheistic beliefs that are based on the Old Testament.’ [19, 35, 47]

Everything about interaction with animals is unJudeo-Christian, Fijn explains.

Christopher Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road [Princeton UP, 2009] has done much to un-other the steppe ‘barbarian’ on war. To him, the notion that the steppe way of life fitted them for war is a nonsense (why aren’t travelers’, anthropologists’ steppe populations bellicose, more bloody than the settled?). As a matter of fact I don’t go along with him altogether, but it is still a bravura performance of un-Othering.

One clarification. Genocide, a 20th-century word, has been applied to Mongol massacres, but (I thank God) in error or loose language, for genocide means to try to extinguish an ethnicity, a religious group or a race, and Mongol wars were never about ethnic cleansing. I don’t know how I’d have the heart to write about them if they were, but I have set myself sufficient challenges.

It is perhaps enough that I take Bo’orchu to the massacres in Turkestan.

My Bo’orchu, if you’ve met him, exemplifies the adjective ‘decent’. He has already, in emergency, practised a style of warfare that shocks a reverend old war chief, versed in traditional methods.

Because Tchingis Khan was an innovator in war. He was not a cultural machine who behaved as a steppe nomad is wont to do, when confronted with a city. He thought outside the square, and shocked his own.

My Bo’orchu has already reeled in horror at the sight of the Naiman army, then his enemy, in a corpse-pit on a scale he has never seen. We’ll have to find out how he feels when the corpses are more strange to him, in Turkestan.

I have spent my first two books, quite deliberately, making 13th-century Mongols as familiar as possible, Mongols ‘at home’, without insertion of escape factors for later on in the story (such as, ‘steppe culture was cruel. Life was cheap to them’). These excuses do not reconcile with views of the Mongols at home. And so they are every bit Terence’s homo sum: there is no way for you or I to think of them as Other, not by now. They have ethics, faith, humanity and everything we have. We can’t be let off the hook, I the writer or any readers out there.

I still have no idea how Bo’orchu is going to travel in Turkestan, to be honest in this blog. We’re not there yet. I have drafted in Temujin’s psychology, until the end. It might change. But Bo’orchu I suppose is my every-person, likeable and well-intentioned, not overly religious for his times and no great genius. I love him dearly, and, well, I’ll be there.

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Image: an illustration to Juvaini, who recorded the massacres.