I am sick, which seems like the best time to reflect on nice things that have happened. Sometimes it can be hard to do that, even when you recognize that you have it pretty good. I have a roof over my head, food, and clothes, which is more than can be said for the naked man running around my neighborhood yesterday.
Right about when the fires were around Los Angeles, I hopped in the car with a friend and we drove out into the mountains, stopping only for a donut break at the famous Donut Man. The shop is well-known for its strawberry donut, where a donut is split like a sandwich and stuffed with fresh berries when they’re in season. Unfortunately, they were not in season, so we settled for the next best thing: the famous tiger tails, which is a swirl of chocolate and vanilla dough.
Out in the mountains, the air was cleaner, but dry as a match box. We holed up in a cabin in Idylwild, like a couple of gophers, sitting around the gas stove and listening to records. I read about medieval statues and drank tea, only to stop and remark how cold it was, like some forgetful grandmother.
Idylwild is a little town, a place for locals and for weekenders from the city with thick trees, boulders, and mountains. Little wooden and trailer businesses, cozy clusters of t-shirts shops, fudge, and small gifts. We woke up and had breakfast at Tommy’s Kitchen. It seemed like everyone walked in for the weekend breakfast, a continuously refreshed buffet of northern european dishes, salmon and capiers, eggs, sausages, waffles, and little pancakes. There were fresh pastries: little cakes studded with fat raisins and topped with pastry cream, apple strudel, coffee cakes, strawberry tarts, and eclairs. Roaming waitresses refilled everyone’s tea and coffee. We sat outdoors on the patio with everyone (and the menagerie of dogs) to gaze up at the San Bernadino mountains over our plates. A musician played his harp in the corner.
The mountains themselves were a little different from the brunch. We clambered around rocks through hiking trails. There were baby squirrels. I convinced myself that I could attempt bouldering, which is just a fancy way of climbing up on big rocks. They were craggy, brittle rocks that caught easily on my shoes and gripped my hands, but could also tear up your fingers if you made a bad move. When I was a kid, I thought I’d become a geologist, because I liked collecting rocks. Now, I know that would not have been the right path for me, but I wish I had at least the vocabulary to describe all the different crags and swirls of color. My dad took a geology class in college, and he said it’s a lot of chemistry; chemistry was a disaster for me. I wrote my first fantasy novel during chemistry. And then, at the end of the semester when my teacher handed back my final exam, I burst into tears like an overcome damsel. So, rock-collecting.
We saw birds too, and became so quiet in the hopes they would fly close. At one of the nature centers, we sat on a bench beside the main bird feeder, watching. There were finches and sparrows and all manner of birds, some slim and speedy, others like fluffy ping-pong balls. My favorite was the Stellar Jay, a large black and blue bird with a tuft on his head. When we hiked back to the car, birds zoomed overheard, back and forth between trees. Their movement caught us in place, like magic threads that forced us to become their audience.
Now, I suppose if any of you ever find yourselves in Idylwild, and you are of age, the winery there is quite good. There was local art on the walls—oils of the mountains, pumas, wood carvings and gleaming glasswork—and as I walked around sipping a cold, bright white, I watched the owner waft steam into dozens of wine glasses, which he then carefully wiped with a soft cloth. Apparently, that is the best way to finish cleaning a wine glass. The internet is incredible, but I worry about learning the things I’ll never think to search for. I would never think to google how to best clean a wine glass to get the rid of the dried droplets. But, now I know.
Apparently, the town’s mayor is a dog. This does not seem a terribly fair campaign for the humans.
On our way away from Idylwild, we stopped at the local town bakery, which was quite nice, although little more than a trailer with assorted lawn furniture out back for sitting. What more does one need for sitting anyway? We ate sandwiches and gazed up at the pines, the mountains. A stray stellar jay, before the barking of a dog sent him flying.
I confess that I did no writing, not really, in Idylwild. I made a Boston cream pie, but no words of Kabuki-ish. I have not been a very good writer lately. I am almost to the end of a second notebook, and as I scribble my way through a teahouse date between actors (that was this morning) I stare at the few remaining pages in the notebook, the few days left in 2018, and rub my head in bafflement. I should have planned better. But as I’ve been sick these last days, I’ve slipped into these moments of unhappy despair. Why am I writing this book that I don’t think anyone will want to read? Why am I writing at all? It’s never going to make any real money! You don’t write fantasy for respect either. They’ll respect you when you’re dead—or maybe Tolkien. But I don’t think that happened until he died? Right?
No one is going to give George R. R. Martin full-throated respect until he is dead and someone goes through his desk and tapes together the next Game of Thrones book. We kick him around now—at least he’s laughing all the way to the bank—but he’ll be like Tolkien when he’s gone.
And, that’s it! He’s our most famous living fantasy writer! He got a song and dance sequence on South Park with waggling penises.
Think about it. If I wanted respect while I’m actually alive, I would write literary fiction, or—wait for it—really heavy science fiction. We always give science fiction more respect. It’s like the STEM of fiction, replete with brainy, technological inspiration and sophisticated commentary on the present or future of humanity. Wow. Such. Weight. Science fiction gets a defensive brigade like the bros on Reddit that will tell you that you studied the wrong thing in college (like, not CS, probably). Science fiction gets forgiven even when it’s bad, when it’s full of talking boobs, dinosaurs and time travel—I hate time travel. Actually, hold that thought. I’ll take the talking boobs and dinosaurs. Hold the time travel.
If science fiction is utterly incomprehensible, it gets defenders. It’s fascinating, like academics defending theorists you’re not entirely convinced they understand. Like, if you throw enough science fiction trope noodles at the wall, something is bound to stick, to resonate with someone who will defend it.
Fantasy is like the humanities of genre fiction. It’s English and History. You tell people you’re an English major and they ask, “What are you going to do with that?”
Fantasy is the “What are we going to do with that?” of societal-oriented fiction. (Also, people who ask that question. The next person who asks me that question is going to get the answer, “Found a startup where I charge people for asking that question.”)
You say you write fantasy, they think magic and dragons, and your parent’s elderly friend becomes all shifty in his seat. You say science fiction, they think robots and that’s eh, that’s okay. I have a robot vacuum. They think, perhaps the lady has some deep societal thoughts to express on the future of automation.
“Perhaps”, this lady says with a thoughtful nod as she drinks her wine.
The last bit of science fiction I wrote was a pitch for a sitcom was about a tech CEO with a robot fetish and two female engineers desperate for work who con him into thinking that one of them is a realistic robot prototype. But in reality they are still working on it. Ex Machina meets Tootsie. I think I deserve millions of dollars, but I digress.
I could digress even more here, but I won’t.
My point is, there’s no assumption of thoughtful fantasy. They assume elves and dwarves and recycled Tolkien. To be fair, there’s a lot of that and I can’t totally blame them, but most of science fiction is recycled Stair Trek-Wars drivel. But with fantasy, it is so often looking at the past. Our worlds are frequently based in the past. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, by the way. Tolkien was a medievalist, old and middle languages and philology. When I read the Lord of the Rings, complete with kings and forces indifferent to evil about to destroy the world (but maybe not their corner), I can’t help but remember that Tolkien fought in World War II. I know it’s not about that war, but perhaps about the role that even the smallest people can play.
But, what I want to say is that speculating and manipulating the past demands just as respect as the future. If anything, more so, because by creating worlds from past molds, we create more interpretations about what happened and what our actions mean today. When we look to the past and interrogate people, people as they were even in a speculative sense, there is a great value. In the same sense, history has great value, as it is the study that gives meaning to and seeks to understand humanity’s existence.
Of course, humanity and science fiction do not have to have people as characters, true. But it is written by humans, for humans, so no doubt there is going to be a bit of interpretative humanity in there.
It is late. I am back in the city, away from the mountains, and I wish the writing was easier. I wish I felt like someone cared. What a cry for help that sentence is, but it is true. I do not feel the urge to lie here.
It is late, and the coyotes are making a real racket. It’s time for bed.