Uncleftish Beholding

Uncleftish Beholding
Poul Anderson
(an essay written as though non-Germanic words had been purged from English, and Germanic constructions were common. It’s basic atomic chemistry.)

At first is was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that
could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made
up of lesser motes. There is a heavy *kernel* with a forward
bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with
backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of ordinary
waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a
*firstbit*. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a
*bernstonebit*. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that
of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought bernstonebits
swing around the kernel like the earth around the sun, but now we
understand they are more like waves or clouds.

read the rest

Ugly Heads and Mother Holle

The Old Stories

1. “You will bathe every day
in milk and rose petals,” she said,
“If you convince your father to marry me.”
The girl complied. After all,
the woman had been nice to her before
and it would be good to have a mother again.
And for a little while, it was milk and roses,
but soon enough it became cold water
and hard bread for breakfast.
The father believed the woman when she claimed
it was because the girl was spoiled.

Blood is thicker than water.
In that, some people find
the strength to lift them higher. Some
the chains that bind.

2. Two daughters sat on the well’s edge.
The favored daughter had finely carded wool,
the unlucky, dirty flax. And when the thread broke,
as the mother knew it would,
she was thrown into the well as punishment.
In the magic land at the bottom, she spoke softly
and politely, and won favors and jewels for her courtesy.
Of course, she would never have dared otherwise at home.
Some coping strategies look like good breeding.

Blood is thicker than water.
In that, some people find
the strength to lift them higher. Some
the chains that bind.

3. When he found out her lies,
he threatened her, that she might give his children back.
She brought back the son, but
when she called for the daughter, she would not come,
preferring to spend the rest of her life as a mackerel
rather than allow her stepmother to change her again.
The wisdom or folly of that course
is known only to the mackerel.

Blood is thicker than water.
In that, some people find
the strength to lift them higher. Some,
the chains that bind.

4. Some variants of the tale
have the brothers changed back
after seven years’ privation by their sister.
No smiles, no laughter, no speech.
At the end, she might have forgotten how to connect.
But in the old Irish tales, the swans are only changed back
after decades or centuries,
only to die of extreme old age.
Some hate resounds through the centuries.

Blood is thicker than water
trailing slowly down the page.
In the end, the truest stories are all
about blood.

September 30th, 2009

The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops (1909)
by E.M. Forster

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.

read the rest



It endured for a thousand years.
Toes broken, arch bent,
tied with strips soaked in blood,
the young girls forced to walk on crippled limbs
to force the bindings ever tighter.
The death toll was unmarked, but high;
infection being most common in the young,
falls in the old.
The goal was a foot of three inches long.
Most women have ankles longer than that.

China had an Ash Girl,
one who saved a golden carp
and kept it, like a pet, in a secret pool.
Her jealous sisters killed and ate it;
she planted the bones,
which grew into a tree,
which granted wishes—does this sound familiar?
and gained her the love of a prince.

The dramatic necessity of the tiny shoe
is obvious; the unmistakeable signal
that the prince has found the correct partner.
The mother chopping off a heel or a toe
(“a mother cannot love a daughter and her daughter’s feet”)
is a symbol of how ruthless one can be
when in pursuit of power.

And yet, one wonders how much travelled along the Silk Road,
if a Frenchman, perhaps, heard the tales of the tiny feet,
the grace of the Lotus Walk,
the delicately embroidered shoes,
and it sparked a tale of fortune’s turn about,
the dispossessed coming back into her own.
He wouldn’t have heard the details;
three-year-olds handed over to foot-binders
to break them for beauty.

We have a knack for finding those things beautiful
which are harmful in the end.
Arsenic complexions
belladonna eyes
compressed and corseted waists—
perhaps the only surprising thing is that it ended.
It endured for a thousand years.

August 28, 2009

Rapunzel (Into the Woods)


There are three motivations in life: money, power, and love.

One can see the mother in the shadow she cast on her daughter:
Power-hungry, clever
raising her daughter to be intelligent
in a world that valued neither women nor intelligence.
Always pushing her daughter for more
but never thinking to offer praise.
The daughter, later, finding it impossible to fit in—
looking for sympathy and finding only accusation
(small wonder, though, considering the history with her neighbors).
She made the classic mistake,
thinking a child will be someone who loves you
when instead, a child is one to whom you give love.
And then, the real tragedy,
assuming that since her upbringing was so harsh and unloving
that the reverse would be ideal
and took matters to the other extreme,
smothering with love,
so it is small wonder that the child, once grown,
was fair prey for the first heartless handsome wretch to come along.
And then life in the world being too much for one raised behind tower walls,
broke beneath the pressure of its demands.
One wonders if the giant’s step came as a relief,
though that, in turn, broke the one who needed her,
craved the love of a daughter, a family,
any family.

Rapunzel sobs that her upbringing has insured
that she can never be happy.
A pause, then,
“I was only trying to be a good mother.”
And we laugh, because, after all,
What would a witch know of love?

May 18, 2009

Iron John

My Teacher Said
(a requiem)

“This symbol is often displayed
incorrectly,” he said,
“The yin descends. Darkness
descends. But do not forget
that there is some light in the darkness
and some darkness in the light,
yin and yang. And far too often
we forget the value of darkness.
The Hebrews created the concept of the Sabbath,
a stroke of brilliance.
It is a natural rhythm;
when we rest, we step outside
and then we can see clearly.”

“It is as though our lives are a stove.
We burn to warm; we burn for light.
But burning creates ashes which, unchecked,
will eventually fill the stove
and choke it out.
Some who burn too brightly will burn out
if they do not take the time to sweep the ashes clean.
And if you only clear enough to light the stove again
it is only a matter of time until
the fire goes out once more.
Deal with the ashes in your life;
scoop out the cinders, and sweep the flue clean.
Only then can a new fire be laid.”

You can rise up high and fall down low;
We all must to ashes someday go.

May 3, 2009

What Does the Font Say?

If you are doing your own graphic design, particularly for book covers, it’s important to understand a little bit about what your font choice is saying. (It’s best if you understand a lot, of course, but as long as you understand enough to pick the proper examples to work from, you’ll do okay.)

The first thing to note is that a default font—the first font your word processing program goes to—is a really bad idea. Not only does it indicate that you put little to no thought into your work, such a font has been used in so many places that its signaling value is null. (I will use the term signal or signaling to indicate the way that a font “feels” to a reader. Some fonts will “feel” like fantasy, or like romance, and those fonts are sending a certain signal.)

The second thing that is important is that the font be legible. even down to a small size. If you’re selling a book on Amazon, the book image is little more than an inch across. If a reader can’t squint a bit and get an idea of what the title is, it will influence their decision to buy negatively.
a block of text that is well-nigh illegible

It’s also considered a good idea to not pick a font face that has been overused. The website Papyrus Everywhere shows examples of the overuse of Papyrus, from homeowner’s associations to organic products, from touring companies to churches, and the end result of this font face being used everywhere is that the font no longer has a useful signal. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Times New Roman, the default font on Microsoft Word. And that means that nobody knows what it’s standing for, except that it’s overused.

So let’s talk about signaling. Some font faces have been used for particular things so much that they have a feel of that venue. For instance, Trajan is the movie font.

It doesn’t tell you the genre of movie, but it does signify that this is a movie that you’re seeing advertised.

When you get into books, each genre—and sometimes even sub-genre—has its own particular style of font faces that say “This is a book of this particular genre.” Not only that, but the signal morphs over time. The fonts that were used twenty years ago are not considered today, and that may even be true of the fonts used just a couple of years ago.

To illustrate, I’m going to use the covers for author Elizabeth Moon. She has more than a quarter-century’s worth of work in at least two distinct genres, and many of her earlier books have seen reprints such that you can compare font choices as they have evolved over time.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is the first book in a fairly well-known trilogy by Moon. You can see that in the first printing, there was some custom work done with the font in order to get that arched style in the title. The second cover uses the same artwork, but has gone to more recent font styles—and the author’s name has gotten larger as she is now well-known and a sales point on her own.

Oath of Gold is in the same series. You can see the use of the same fonts in the first cover, but the second is from a different reprint than my earlier example. It’s fairly recent. Note the slight flare to the letter ends—not full serifs, but enough to keep it from being a sans-serif font. Fantasy fonts have serifs or semi-serifs; science fiction has sans-serif fonts almost exclusively.

If you squint hard at the original 1990 cover of Surrender None (sorry; it’s the biggest I could find), you can see that all of the fonts are serif and that all are capitalized.

Personally, I’m amused at the swordsman pose in the second version, which so closely mimics the one on the original cover of Liar’s Oath. Neither swordsman has much of anything to do with the text, but we’re talking signals here, not accuracy.

Elizabeth Moon also writes science fiction. Here are a couple of her titles with variant covers.

What does each choice of font imply to you?

As one final note on font choice, I am going to refer to an article by Fontcraft about choosing alternate fonts. An alternate font is one that looks similar to the one you want, but has different design elements and isn’t as widely used.

I can’t say it better than they have here: “Once a font reaches the level of overexposure you begin to see other, better and more appropriate fonts being passed over because designers have an unconscious impetus towards the look which has become established for the genre they work in, or they are just lazy and say “hey, this is a horror movie, let’s just use the font that was used on The Craft” […] Good fonts get neglected and fonts of questionable quality get entrenched and become tediously overused.”

Even Elizabeth Moon got a Morpheus-variant font. (That N. That horrible, horrible N.)