Trickster Syndrome

Like many creative people I know, I suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome. No matter my achievements or my experience in my field of work, I always feel like I just tricked everyone into believing I’m performing okayish. But deep inside, I know I’m fake, and sooner or later, it will show. If you just look close enough, you’ll see it.

I feel I’m quite lucky to be able to earn my money with things I like more often than not, and sometimes even with things I love. That might be fueling my problem, because as I told earlier, I was raised catholic, and like every good ex-catholic, I constantly ask myself: What have I done to earn anything at all? When will I fall for having been so lucky?

So I’m proceeding with my words, pretending to be a translator and writer and storyteller and linguist and whatnot. I’ve done this for years, so I guess I’m quite good at it. As absurd as it sounds today that someone will jump out and triumphantly announce: We knew it! You were a fraud all along!, occasionally I still have a dream about my university entrance diploma being disallowed. (Almost 20 years later … and it wouldn’t even matter, because I’m my own boss. But my impostor nightmares don’t care.)

Recently, though, I’m observing a shift in my perspective. What if I (and all my creative impostor friends) are drawn to the arts because we are resourceful tricksters? What else is a storyteller, if not a trickster, pretending to be what she is not, shapechanging and dazzling and manipulating? All of these trickster qualities are traits you need to tell good stories: To trick the audience into believing anything. To mold your voice into different shapes and perspectives. To convince people to follow you on a trail of imaginary breadcrumbs. To trap them in your net of entertaining lies.

Tricksters are my favorite protagonists. And my favorite trickster is Coyote, with all his clever, dumb, selfish, and heroic ways. So, my favorite Coyote story is about Coyote stealing the stars*. And isn’t every star a promise of something new, a new world, a new story, a guiding light that shines in the void? It’s a very trickster-like thing to bring story into nothingness, and shaping, even disheveling reality in the act. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde’s ultimate trickster compendium, Michael Chabon (a very talented trickster himself) says so in his foreword, about creating story out of our random endeavors …

[…] as if they mattered, as if they had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t, but there is neither joy nor art nor pleasure to be made from saying so. Coyote wouldn’t waste his time on a paltry truth like that.
– Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

That’s the kind of trick I’d like to pull off, the kind of lie worth telling. And if it means suffering from insecurity because you’re pretending all the time, losing yourself in changing shapes, and your fragile lies are about to collapse, so be it. Those dark moments will pass when you steal a new set of stars and make them shine.

Impostor Syndrome is lame. It keeps you on your toes, sure, but otherwise it just makes you anxious and overly self-conscious. But I guess I could live with Trickster Syndrome. There are realities to dishevel and purposes to be found!

*Actually, there are more stories about Coyote stealing the sun or the moon, but I made the stars sound convincing, too, don’t you think …?

Small Crush: All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

Murderbot does what it says on the tin (although it doesn’t say ‘Murderbot’ on its tin, it says SecUnit, and Murderbot is just the not-so-ironic nom de guerre it chose for itself): It’s a bot intimidatingly apt at deploying the array of weapons at its disposal. Murderbot is also pretending to be a normal android slave, even though it has attained free will. And it’s addicted to binge-watching a cheesy show called Sanctuary Moon.

If this isn’t the stuff good stories are made of, I don’t know what is.

All Systems Red by Martha WellsMartha Wells has been a staple of my reading life and a long-time favorite of mine. Somehow I had filed her mostly as a fantasy author, although her fantasy novels often include SF elements such as lost technology or steampunk contraptions. All Systems Red is fully-fledged SF, with strong characterization and a fascinating style and POV. Murderbot tells us of its own adventures, and it speaks to the part of us that is withdrawn, socially awkward and needs its alone time (a lot of it, actually).

All Systems Red is written with all the thoughtfulness and empathy of a truly modern SF tale and fits in with other feel-good SF adventures of our time – we join a diverse group of scientists on a planet survey, and they simply like each other and are nice people. And while the plot revolves around something less nice harassing Murderbot’s clients (leading to some biting commentary on capitalism, which turns its deadly side on the protagonists, too), the inner struggle of Murderbot is far more important.

It is a story about truly accepting free will in another – maybe odd – life form, with all consequences. Good intentions may not be good enough, and changing attitudes is always a struggle on both sides. I loved how these themes are tackled in All Systems Red. It comes with a solid adventure story, not too complicated, because it is a novella you can read in one sitting, and features some shiny nuggets of worldbuilding (hey, it’s Martha Wells; she’s a master worldbuilder).

All Systems Red is framed as The Murderbot Diaries 1, and I’m already waiting for the next installment like it was an unwatched episode of Sanctuary Moon.

Sunday Story Time: Home & Home

In Germany, we’re having an ugly debate about cultural identity and guidelines for integration if you’re new to this country. It’s anything but harmless, and it’s not so much a debate, but mostly pre-election hokum by announcing crude theses nobody I know can truly identify with … at all.

It made me think of this comic by Jem Yoshioka. Home & Home illustrates how cultural identity is a complicated, painful, beautiful process that’s maybe never really complete. In some smaller, sneakier ways even for those of us who think our roots are not as widespread, as the world is changing around us. You could not step twice into the same river, Heraclitus said. Maybe those of us who desperately wish it was always the same river have to swim hardest and will one day wonder how they’ve ended up in such a strange place.

First person problems

Some of my favorite stories and novels are told from first-person perspective, and I love to employ first person narrators myself. I’m intrigued by the instant narrative situation they create when they come along and say: sit down and listen, I’m going to tell you a story.

But they sure are special snowflakes. I struggled to make a story work with a first person narrator these days, trying to find the voice of an unruly protagonist, and a beginning that didn’t suck. While ditching dozens of approaches, I again learned a lot, so why not put it on record for future reference?

First person narration is so different from third person narration that a certain amount of readers simply doesn’t like it. It is the original, primal storytelling mode (someone experienced something and goes on to tell the tale), but in fiction, third person has become the default mode. For me, third person narration is like hitting play on the media device of your choice, while first person narration is like sitting down with a storyteller. Some people enjoy being steered and sometimes overpowered by a narrator, some people just want to see how the events come to pass without a guide. But don’t be fooled; the storyteller may be hidden behind the ‘camera’ in third person narrations, but she’s there, deciding what you get to see.

As a writer, I feel like entering no-rules-country with a first person narrator, and you don’t even have to install an unreliable narrator for that (although it’s debatable if they aren’t all unreliable per default). While in third person you seem to have a limiting frame, looking through the eyes of one person at one time, you don’t have to tell one thing after the other with a first person narrator who may know the whole story. Tenses become arbitrary, and you have to decide, decide, decide: Why put this element here and not there? Why show it at all and not do a charming summary? Anything goes, except when it doesn’t. Of course you don’t have to do anything at all in third person narration either, because there are no rules if you can pull it off. First person narrators may be a good training ground for your storytelling antennas. You’ll have to make sure to sort out what’s really important and how and when it is best presented.

The distance between first person narrator and reader is anything but zero. No one thinks of himself or herself as the “I” in a story. A story is not a pop song, like a one-size-fits-all representation of your everyday joys and worries. You experience a different perspective, and for me, first person narrators even create a greater distance: while they are undeniably present in shaping the flow of the story, they seem to vanish from the events themselves. The narrator is at the same time inside the story (unless she tells about other people’s adventures) and outside of it. When she stands beside the reader, whispering in his ear, she just can’t be completely in the thick of the things she’s describing, only an aspect of her can. So you close one kind of distance, but open up another. This distance will also show in the places where first person narration appears to be artificial (as in: whoever remembers every single word of a years-old conversation?*).

There is, of course, a trick to avoid this. Well, there’s certainly more than one, but this one is very obvious: why not put the narrator in an ongoing now moment and tell the story in present tense? No distance at all, and you’re breathlessly rushing alongside your protagonist all the time and experience everything in real time. Expect that real time creates bloated abominations of stories. And while breathless rushing is fun in action scenes, it tends to suck when it whips you through a whole novel. At the moment, only two authors who did this with grace come to my mind – remarkably using a very similar plot device: Matthew Stover in Acts of Caine (first person narrator in present tense whenever Caine’s adventures are broadcasted to an audience, but third person when he is offline), and Linda Nagata in The Red (first person and present tense all the time, and there are hints that this is a show broadcasted to an audience).

There are brilliant first person narrations out there. I’m reading one at the moment and will recommend it fervently next week. In my own story, I opted for third person in the end. But I think messing around with various first person approaches helped me find the voice I needed.

*She’s making it up, of course. She’s a storyteller, not an archivist.

Sunday Story Time: If My Dog Could Talk

Last time, I had a cat for you, so naturally, this week, it has to be a dog.

If My Dog Could Talk is by no means a literary masterpiece and, befitting a dog, it lacks the elegance of the cat text from last week. But I laughed. It’s so dog. We all know a pupper like this one. Or maybe even a person? I HALP

It’s part of the endless treasure trove of tumblr again – check it out!

It’s the end of the world and we love it

Bang, lights out, and it’s all over and done with? As if! Post-apocalyptic scenarios represent one of the classic, never-grow-old sub-genres of sf, and while the reasons why everything goes down the drain follow certain trends, as well as the kind of (non-)societies emerging afterwards, the end per se remains a solid narrative trope.

So here’s why I think we can’t resist telling stories about the fall of Man and the destruction of Earth.

Some people just like to see the world burn, a wise old butler once said, and he’s right, I guess. I for sure do. The concept is thrilling. A larger than, well, death memento mori moment. Everything we cared for, everything that mattered could be gone in an instant. Our whole style of living withers away, and with it the thin patina of civilization. That’s how those big American road trips through the end times like The Walking Dead or The Road show it.

But for me, to see the world burn is not enough. I found out that I deeply value the “post” part in my apocalyptic endeavors. That’s maybe why the recent revival of dystopias didn’t appeal to my taste. I think they’re a whole different kind of beast: Where post-apocalyptic tales mostly focus on a world remade by the forces that destroyed it, dystopias dwell on the downfall of society (often only of its lower rungs, while the upper classes thrive). If this is the way the world ends, I think I prefer the bang to the whimper. But curiosity gets the better of me more often than not.

It’s in our guts. It’s our survival instinct – devastating disasters shaped the collective consciousness of mankind, from real earthquakes and volcano eruptions to mythical endless winters and deluges. We are no cockroaches who will crawl out of radioactive zombiefied lava downpour just fine, so we better pay attention when disaster hits. The same instinct is still active today; catastrophes fascinate us: when planes crash or plagues strike, we go click.

We are compelled to ask: Who will survive? Me me me, some tiny inner MacGyver cries, and that’s how I’ll do it! And if the scope of time and destruction gets bigger, at least we want to know what will survive of us: Just silly things like the shopping list in Canticle for Leibowitz? Did we leave something eternal, something helpful for those who come after us, and will they still be human enough to appreciate it?

The resilience of Man provides the much needed positive vibes for a lot of post-apocalyptic scenarios. We want to witness that something survived. That people will hold out, some even without reverting to barbarism. By stripping away everything and looking at the remains, these stories also determine what is human … and what is not anymore. But something will emerge from the ruins, and I love to see that despite all adversities, mankind might be as hard to kill as the cockroaches in the end. The survivors will try to cling to some form of live or the other, even if they have to fight off a whole mutant roach society. Or forge peace with them.

Because maybe, we’ll be able to learn. Post-apocalyptic stories are about hubris. Since we found out that we are truly capable of destroying it all, they have served as a warning, as an exploration of the consequences of bringing about our own downfall. Sure, there are meteors, plagues and other natural disasters, but very often, apocalypse is self-induced.

There are even benefits: Nature will take a breathe. When we also realized that we’re not exactly crucial to Earth’s wellbeing, there has been a lot of interest in imagining how fast our footprints will be gone and forgotten (as in The World Without Us) and what might evolve after we’re gone (as in After Man).

It’s a whole new world! The bleakness of Earth destroyed is often set off by the prospect of a different world, a different society, free from the burden of the past. It’s a relaunch, and the world will be decluttered like your apartment after you get one of those throw-away-everything self-help books. This is a deceptively easy path to post-apocalyptic bliss: live the simple life, back to the basics, fight mutants, mildew, and meningitis …

Anyway, post-apocalyptic scenarios provide us with a fresh slate to experiment with, without dumping us on a new world or in a strange, far-off land. The whole thing is ready to be re-imagined, but relatable at the same time (you now, when the mutant roaches dig out this shiny inexplicable, inedible thing with an engraved apple). And from then on, anything can happen, and the big bang that should have been the end of it all is a starting point for something new, or at least for a compelling story, just as it should be.

Sunday Story Time: From the Point of View of a Cat

Time for some cat content, always a wise choice when time is short and the mind is distracted with other things. Czech writer Karel Čapek did not only coin the term ‘robot’ in one of his plays, he also wrote about animals frequently, as in War with the Newts.

In this short piece from 1935 he takes the point of view of a cat, and he seems to be a real cat connoisseur.

I stumbled upon it on tumblr, where you can have a look at it, too.

Small Crush: Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty)

Once in a blue moon, some book’s premise triggers my curiosity so effectively I can’t resist. I. Need. To. Know. I need to know what happens and how it’s done. Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes is one such story.

Six WakesDormire is a starship with six crew members on a long, long voyage. They all wake up in their cloning tanks with memory loss, while the ship is off course and their murdered former bodies are still floating around in zero gravity, because someone disabled the AI and the basic functions of the ship. One of them did this, but they can’t even trust themselves, because each and every one of them has no memories of the time leading up to the disaster.

I didn’t need to know more to start reading. It’s like playing the RPG Paranoia – you can’t trust anyone and keep staying on your toes. And it’s kind of a derailed cousin of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. While Angry Planet’s Wayfarer is full of fluff and love, and nothing much happens in an utterly adorable way, Six WakesDormire houses an equally diverse crew (not as colorful, because no aliens), but it’s full of suspicion and flaring tempers, and ALL THE THINGS happen. The whirlwind plot cycles through the characters, the pacing is relentless, and your suspicions shift along with the crew’s. Before long, you expect this dysfunctional team to rush into another killing spree any minute instead of working together to save the ship.

Gradually, the story transcends the fundamental Whodunnit premise and ends up asking questions about cloning ethics and forgiveness. There are even some echoes of Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain when you learn about the development of mankind under the influence of cloning. And then to read in the afterword that it all started as an FTL fan fic warmed my gamer heart, although I never would have guessed.

Six Wakes offers no easy camaraderie and feel-good vibes, but an interesting bunch of troubled characters in a dire, dire situation, and the revelation that comfort food helps even in space.

Sunday Story Time: Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth

This Sunday, I want to share a brilliant, gripping novella I discovered last week. In Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth by Juliette Wade, you get thrown into a mix of different and utterly strange cultures in a world inhabited by dog-like, sentient creatures. These canine peoples are beautifully envisioned and use some distinct forms of language you’ll have to adapt to. I’m always amazed at how fast we are normalizing new linguistic quirks if they are presented cleverly. (But, as a caveat, this story is not for you if you don’t like to have to cope with lots of new words and concepts you just have to accept for the moment and work out their meaning by reading on.)

The story of Rulii, an older, high-ranking member of the conquered race of canines in this scenario, and nearly the only one interested in the human scientists also visiting this world, is a fast-paced mix of adventure, intrigue and character development. While the concept and setting were totally down my alley, I was equally fascinated by the clever, sweeping tale itself. Both come together admirably in the way Rulii perceives and eventually understands the human word friendship, an absolutely outlandish concept in a culture that defines all relationships by dominance and submission, hierarchy and rank.

Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth was published in Clarkesworld #127, and you can find it online here, or subscribe to the magazine, for example on Patreon.

Storytelling, catholic edition

I’m from Bavaria, one of the hyper-catholic regions of Europe, and I grew up in a small village with a church at its physical and metaphysical center. When I was young, religion was a big part of my life. Nowadays I find myself wondering about its influence on me and my perception of story. Because church and religion were, as a kid, first and foremost story to me.

The church itself with all its paintings, statues and other representations was full of stories, and during mass, you got to hear at least one more, two if you were lucky. My penchant for epic, mythic storytelling must have been surfacing then already, because I preferred Old Testament stories above all others. Nothing much beats the Exodus, even Hollywood agrees.

The only equally big New Testament thing is the Passion of Christ, storytelling highlight of catholicism and nucleus of faith. And considering the Passion of Christ, you can’t deny the inherent grimdark streak of the catholic church. It’s not just that the story of the crucifixion is told in a very detailed and prolonged way, but there is a real inclination towards gruesome detail and dark, gritty depictions. I remember sitting in church every Sunday, above me a statue of the Mater dolorosa (which is basically Mary with a sword through her chest, as a symbol of her suffering), and from where I sat I could study another statue: Saint Sebastian the martyr, mostly naked and pierced by a significant amount of arrows – a whole lot more than Boromir. Bavarian sculptors and painters did not shy away from showing what wounds looked like; there was a fair amount of trickling blood, gaping flesh and agonizing sores to be seen.

When it came to my Communion, the ceremonial initiation into the catholic fold, I got a book about saints. I gobbled it up like I gobbled up every other book I could get my hands on (even math textbooks for school, but that’s another story), and, wow, there was a whole new range of suffering and dying to be discovered. Some of the stories about female martyrs are highly sexualized; they’re often virgins unwillingly claimed by powerful men, and are subsequently shown to their community naked, then publicly tormented and killed. Eight year old me didn’t feel all that comfortable reading those stories.

But the stories also cover power, wonders and the sublime. Religion, like story, strifes to tackle the big themes of mankind. There is, of course, a difference: In a very simplified way, you could say stories make us ask questions, while religion tries to provide answers. I think it is not a coincidence that some of the early defining voices of the epic fantasy genre were catholic, too. The catholic origin story of suffering and sacrifice, of paying a hefty price if you were to truly achieve something, is a powerful motif.

The concept of faith and believing itself invites story: it’s at a person’s core and can (and must) be challenged, and there is a whole string of cultural implementations attached to it, providing even more fodder for story. I always feel drawn to the decorum and grand gestures of catholicism and its compulsion to dominate people’s lives (both storytellingwise). It was all ingrained in my mind as a child and challenged me to reflect on it, the light and the dark, the sins and the saints.

Well, and then there is another thing the stories from church have taught me: They taught me about bad storytelling. Man, it was frustrating at times how bad the stories told in church were, compared to the stories I read at leisure. Sometimes they made no sense at all, had no proper ending, had a lot of “because I say so” going on, pieces didn’t fit, and, as an inherent fault of the genre, there was deus-ex-machina in abundance. But maybe they didn’t care about suspension of disbelief because it was assumed that you already handled this before you sat down in church.

There is, without doubt, also some good storytelling going on there. Some seriously rad imagery has trickled down into our language, and there are quotable lines galore. In German, even a lot of the words for inner processes and emotions stem from christian scholars trying to make up words for concepts that were never needed before. Part of this significance has to do with christianity dominating western culture for centuries. Its lore and legends even managed if not to kill, then at least to discontinue a lot of other powerful mythological traditions. But at its core, there must have been good storytelling (or at least the right stories at the right time), because at some time in the past, people were moved to flock together and listen. It can’t just boil down to a love of grimdark and “come back next Sunday to hear if the pharaoh really shot Moses”, can it?