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Category Archives: Rants

Social Media and Plagiarism: How the Dynamic Web Has Changed Speech

There’s been a lot of hubbub on the internet lately, in social media circles as well as the traditional press, about the issue of plagiarism in social media.

Now, plagiarism has been a problem online for a long time, but social media brings something different to the discussion.  Back when the internet was young, and you had to pay your own hosting fees and code your own website, it was a lot more difficult, and just plain inconvenient to plagiarize.  You had a static site and relatively few ways to distribute your work.  Much like with books, the Static Web was everywhere, but not all that hard to police.

But social media and the content creation movement has changed all that.  Where once we had the Static Web, with people coding their own sites by hand, or paying someone else, we now have the Dynamic Web, where for the cost of an internet connection or a walk to the local library, anyone can have as-good-as-infinite accounts on the hundreds of content creation and social media sites whose struggles carry vibrations all across the Web.  And these sites auto-create pages from databases and some PHP/RoR/Perl code.  No more commitment-heavy hand-coding.

There are actually two issues at hand here.  Although content creation platforms and social media platforms are different in method, they are similar and ethos, and their differences shrink daily, as VBulletin includes blogging features in their forum software, and Facebook Groups function much like an old-style message board.  The effect of both of these Dynamic Web implementations is to bring written speech much closer to casual speech.

It used to be that creating written work required a commitment to the end product.  People struggled over letters to friends, competed to be published in newspapers.  Many people ascribe the various issues with Dynamic Web speech to the lack of gate-keepers or competition.  But what’s really going on is deeper than that.  Although social media sites like Facebook and Twitter store speech in text format, a status on Facebook, or a tweet on Twitter, is not really the written word.  It’s treated and acts much more like a comment tossed off in a college discussion class, or a joke made to a friend.

And where the disconnect between people in the Static vs. Dynamic Web paradigms happens is that the Tweeter or the Facebook poster isn’t thinking of their status as a publication.  So when they leave off a citation, or mis-attribute a quote, they don’t consider the consequences.  After all, we’ve never policed the spoken word to the extent that we police the written word.  It would be impossible.

So when I stumbled across the false MLK quote doing the rounds on Facebook and looked it up on Snopes.com, it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t really from MLK.  If it had been a spoken word mis-quote, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  The maximum propagation rate for the spoken word is relatively small.  It’s limited by memory, by audience, by time, by importance, by significance.  But because the text Web is searchable, because it allows instant access to much larger social networks, because the Web is forever, the propagation rate of a statement is significantly higher.  What would have been an un-important mistake in a casual conversation with a few friends has the potential to reach a much larger audience.  And that audience, reached through the Dynamic Web, is more likely to treat the statement as normal speech, and therefore, before passing on this mis-quotation, they are unlikely to source and cite it.  And then we have the issue that we had with the MLK quote and many others in the last few years.

As an example of this dis-connect, I have an anecdote I heard from a friend of mine.  He was perusing his Facebook feed, and came across an screencap from tumblr showing images and recipes for cocktail shots based on Eevee’s evolutions in the Pokemon games.  He shared it.  As it happened, one of his friends was friends with the person who had created the shot recipes.  And who was shocked and a bit creeped out to find it coming back to her in this circuitous Kevin Bacon effect manner.  Whoever had learned about it from her probably didn’t consider it plagiarism to pass it on.  After all, one of the features tumblr is most well known for is the “reblog” feature.  Which actually does a decent job of citation.  Tmublr has a system for that.

And so we encounter the other disconnect of the Dynamic Web.  Not all sites have the same terms of service, and very few sites, if any, have clear rules for how content is to be treated if shared outside the boundaries of its original, individual site.  You may have come across the auto-citations that many sites have started adding to links and copy-pasted quotes.  Or how a major art-based social media and display site, DeviantArt, implemented an anti-hot-linking system a few years ago.  All of these are individual sites’ attempts to combat the casual speech ethos of the Dynamic Web.  But what we really need, what would actually do something to solve the greater problem, is to educate people on the differences between social networks and content creation platforms and casual, real-world speech.  Perhaps the chat systems implemented by Facebook and other such sites are somewhat equivalent to casual speech.  But a Facebook status or a blog post is not.  You can’t treat them the same way, because as a decade or so of evidence has shown us, the consequences of such speech are very different.

Now, it isn’t a sure thing that Dynamic Web speech is the same as professional publication or journalism, either.  It may be in-between.  But better to err on the side of intentional publication than of casual speech.

(Maybe next time I’ll address plagiarism of status and blog articles more specifically.)

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Blogging, Publishing, Rants, Social Media, Writing

 

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I Am A Terrible Person

You are about to read a big long rant about how much I hate the world and all the people in it.  I will sound like a terrible person.  Because I am a terrible person.  I do not act how I really want to act, or do what I really want to do, or say what I really want to say.  Why?  Because I care what other people think about me.

Here’s a very incomplete list of why I am a terrible person:

1.  I am a hypocrite.  I do not stand up for what I believe in.  I let people say racist things, and sexist things, and just plain terrible things.  I laugh when people say these things.  I say these things.  I have told racist jokes, and sexist jokes, and Hellen Keller jokes.  Even though I knew they were wrong.  Because if I held to every principle I believe in, I would be very alone.  Most of my friends would not be friends with me anymore.  Most of my family would refuse to talk to me.  Many of the people I stood up for would blame me for making their lives harder.  And it is very easy to say that maybe I should find different friends.  Well, I have an excuse for that, too:

2.  I am pathetic.  I don’t make friends easily.  I am shy, I have severe social anxiety, and most of the time I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to talk to me at all, much less be friends with me.  And so I am willing to bend my rules quite a bit to keep from losing a friend.

I once had a huge fight with a friend of mine.  It was one of many such fights.  He made a comment about me on Facebook in response to a status that had exactly zero to do with him.  It was rude, and irrelevant, and I still don’t really understand why he said it.  And he had been following me around facebook making similar comments in similar contexts for several days before.  That comment struck a nerve like a planet-killing asteroid, and so I called him on it.  But I didn’t want to ruffle feathers.  Not everything he says is like that.  Not everything he says makes me want to break his nose with a violin case.  So, I pretended like it wasn’t a huge deal.  I called him out with a joke.  And so of course he refused to listen.  So I called him out again, more strongly.  And he got mad.  We started trading shots back in forth and he ended up, in complete seriousness, threatening to beat the shit out of me the next time we met.  And he could.  He could drop me on the floor in three seconds flat.  He gets in lots of fights, and there’s usually broken bones involved.

I am never completely innocent.  I have done things I believe are wrong, I have trapped myself.  If I tell someone I think they have done something wrong, they can point to all of the times I have done that thing, and no matter what excuse I have, and I have many, it is never enough, and so I shut my mouth and agree that I am wrong and that I have no right to criticize, and I apologize for calling them out for their words and actions, and I tell them that what they have done is okay.

I’m still not sure I wouldn’t deserve it if he beat the shit out of me.  I said some pretty bad things to him in the course of that argument.  But, what I was sure of, was that I didn’t want to lose this person as a friend.  And so, even though I believed that he was at fault, and I still would have clocked him if we had been face-to-face and he said one more thing, I apologized, and I let him work me around until I ended up taking all the blame, and he had only responded as any sane person would.  And I felt it was completely worth it, and I would do it again in a second.  Because if our friendship got trashed, it would have caused major damage to several other relationships, which I also didn’t want to lose, even if he chose not to be vindictive about it.

3.  I am selfish.  The status quo sucks, but because I am a white, hetero-sexual, American male, I can look at all of the acts which violate my beliefs and say: “This does not affect me.  It does not make my life harder.  But opposing it would; and because I am selfish, and I like having friends, and not being treated like a freak, I will put up with and even participate in these things in order to maintain my current position.

4.  I am a coward.  My position is not perfect.  I have money problems, and I get bullied, and I have no idea what the fuck I am doing, and I feel like shit every day for giving in to peer pressure, and sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up in the morning.  But things could be worse.  They could be a lot worse.  And one of the things that would make them worse is standing up for what I believe is right.  And so I will not do it.  Because I am afraid of what would happen if I did.

And all of those things make me hate myself.  But clearly not enough to do anything about it.  And that’s why I say I am a terrible person.

Now, this is a writing blog.  I said it was a writing blog.  You expect it to be a writing blog.  The obvious connection to writing here is flawed but symapthetic but realistic characters.  A realistic character will not have a good reason for everything they do.  They will do things that conflict with their beliefs.  They will do things that conflict their society’s beliefs.  And they must absolutely do something that conflicts with the readers’ beliefs–because otherwise their flaw is no flaw.  Their reasons for doing these things will range from righteous to deplorable.  People will disagree over whether their actions are justified.  But if you want the character to be sympathetic, these actions must be understandable.  And in much of the fiction I have read, whether speculative, or mainstream, or YA, I don’t see people doing these things, and it really takes the tension out of the story.  Your hero does some horrible thing and I am about to have a fascinating moral debate with myself–but wait!  A god revives all the people he killed, or it turns out that things were not as they seemed and the hero is completely justified, or maybe he got so far as picking the lesser of two objective evils.  And so I can’t possibly fault his decision, and all that angst you built up on the way to this climax falls flatter than a week-old glass of coke.  And all the sympathy for the character and the terrible choice they had to make vanishes, and I want to throw your book against the wall, or maybe smack you in the back of the head with it.  Bad Aurthor!  And then I will go leave a scathing review on Goodreads or Amazon, because the one thing I do have the guts to stick up for is protecting readers from a shitty book.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2011 in atsiko, Rants

 

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Why I Subscribe to Blogs

I have recently subscribed to a new blog, Invincible Summer from lovely YA writer Hannah Moskowitz.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually the first new blog I’ve subscribed to in a year.

So why did I subscribe to it?  Did I stumble upon it on Google?  Find a link on a bookmarking site like reddit or delicio.us?  No.  I kept running into links on other sites and blogs.  Took part in some conversations on Absolute Write.  After about the fiftieth link on blogs to which I am already subscribed, I stopped by and read the first ten posts on the blog.  Several of them were exactly the sort of thing Ilook for on a writing blog, and so I copied the url into my googlereader.  Now, I’ve done similar things with other blogs, but I ended up not subscribing.  Here are the five most common reasons I subscribe to a blog, and the five most common reasons why I do not:

Why? (In no particular order:)

1.  Links from blogs I already follow.  The more the better.  They tell me that there is a consistent pattern of valued and valuable content.  These can be posts about the link only, or they can be round-ups.  If I start to recognize your name on a round-up post, I am very likely to give your blog itself a look.

2.  Meeting the blogger in a community setting, such as a forum for writers.  My top forum for finding good blogs?  Absolute Write.

3.  I buy one of the bloggers books and like it.  if I like your book, then I have a reason as a reader to look you up.  If I like your blog, it’s because I enjoy it as a writer, as well.

4.  I see one of your books on Amazon or Wikipedia.  These are the places I go when someone recs a book to me.

5.  Guest posts on blogs I read.  These are fantastic advertisements for your own blog.  They mean someone I trust likes what you have to say, and they are a good sample of what I expect to find on your blog.

Why not?

1.  I go to your blog and I see advertisements.  If I get to the point where I’m reading through your recent posts to see if there’s a pattern of value, I don’t want to see adverts for your books.  I don’t want to see contests, or giveaways.  All of these things are fine.  But they are not what attracts people to a good blog.  A good blog gives something to the reader, it does not only solicit money for the writer.

2.  I go to your blog and all I see is pictures of your cats, covered in bacon or otherwise.  I am not looking for cat blogs.  I am looking for writer and/or writing blogs.  If you want to occasionally post pictures of your cats or of sunsets, or of your cute little kid, that’s fine.  But it’s a grace note, something you can foist off on me as content once I am engaged and interested.  John Scalzi likes to post amateur photos of sunsets, and they are very pretty.  I like them.  But they are not why I read his blog.

3.  If there have not been any posts for over two months.  I don’t think I need to explain.

4.  If the posting schedule is inconsistent.  This is not a big loser.  It’s why people invented blog readers, so I don’t have to check every day to see if a bloggers has dug up and displayed some nugget of wisdom for me.  It’s a small issue, but consistent posting does tell me that this blog is likely to survive long enough to be worth my inital investment.  (I am also a hypocrite for saying this, since I have updated irregularly of late.)

5.  Boring stuff/stuff I have seen before.  This is tougher.  These sort of posts will attract blogging newbies, because they have not seen all the other examples out there.  But the best blogs provide something new, something you can’t get elsewhere easily.  After the thirtieth generic query advice post, they all start to seem the same.  If they are well-written, I will forgive you.

So, here is the conclusion.  I want good content on a consistent basis.  I understand that promotional posts will pick up when a book release is imminent.  I understand tha real life gets in the way.  But if your entire blog morphs into promotion when a book is coming out, or you suddenly veer into all extras about your cats and kids, then I am likely to not subscribe, or else to drop my subscription if I already have one.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Blogging, How To, Ideas, Rants

 

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Don’t Judge a Series by Its First Book

Series are very common in speculative fiction, and especially in fantasy.  And even more especially in Urban Fantasy.  Normally, when you read the first book in a series and find it less than satisfying, you don’t read the rest of the books in that series.

So, when I finally put down Stacia Kane’s Unholy Ghosts, the first book in her Downside Ghosts series, I was very disappointed.  Here was I book I had greatly been anticipating, and had recommended to me, even though I don’t usually read a lot of Urban Fantasy.  The author is also active on Absolute Write, my favorite writing forum, and I have in fact spoken to her there.

But after the first 50 pages, I found the book very slow going.  The magic system was interesting, there was a unique twist on the post-apocalyptic world, the character was a strong but flawed woman with drug issues and ties to the underworld that actually caused conflict with her everyday job.  The writing was good.  The villain was interesting.  Yet the book wasn’t.  (Keep in mind this was my first Stacia Kane book.)

I tend to finish things I start, and so I finished the book.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually enjoy books, and I felt let down.  Even though I was desparate for reading material, the other two books sat on the shelf for two or three weeks.  If I hadn’t bought all three currently available books in the series in one mass splurge of book-balancing, checker-shocking hemorrhage of cash, I would have written it off as bad luck and moved on.  I would not have picked up the sequels.  And I would have missed out big time.

Because the sequels were both page-turners, which I tore through in one day instead of studying for my finals.  I loved them.  I could see how much they benefitted from the set-up in the first book.  There was a bit much re-hashing from Unholy Ghosts, and I think the books could have still been good reads if I hadn’t slogged through the first book.  But overall, they were great, and I’m glad I bought them.

I’ve heard similar stories about Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  Fans are constantly explaining that the series really gets started after the first book, Gardens of the Moon, which is apparently slow and boring in its overwhelming detail.  (Personally, I loved it.)  The point is, even though writers are often advised that the first whatever–sentence, paragraoh, page, chapter, novel–is what makes or breaks a sale, those criteria don’t always match up with reality.

While it’s true that there are more books out there than a single person could read in ten life-times, that you can always just move on to a series that is good from start to finish, that doesn’t mean you should never read a book by that author again.  Some authors deserve a second chance.

If you haven’t taken the hint already, Stacia Kane is one of those authors.  But this post is not about how much I now love Stacia Kane.  It’s about how no matter the amount of polish you grind into your first whatever, it won’t always be good enough to hook someone’s interest.  But that doesn’t mean it sucks, or that you should give up on further work in that direction.  So keep writing, and keep reading, and hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Rants, Reviews, Series, Writing

 

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Scalded by Steampunk

So I dropped into my blog reader today, and the number one topic of conversation seemed to be that steampunk sucks, is boring, is shallow, is revisionism(fictional revisionism, the horror!), is a commercial sell-out, is crap, is shit, is tiresome, is over-hyped, is racist, is colonialist, is adventurist, has not one really powerful story to its name, etc.

And then I saw that one of the people saying this was Charlie Stross, and I almost cried.  Because I love the books Charlie Stross writes.

And then I stopped and thought:  “People are getting worked up over a fucking sub-genre of fiction.”  Why?  What’s the point?  You don’t like steampunk?  Great.  Enjoy whatever it is you enjoy, but why attack a genre that’s never done anything to you?  Either write something better or move on.  Isn’t there some new Tolkien clone somewhere to bash?  Horrendous glorification of the middle ages and all that?

If speculative fiction was a house, steampunk would be the leaky boiler pipe in the basement.  Don’t stand in front of it and you won’t get burned.  Maybe you find it annoying.  Well, I find it annoying when people turn down the high while wearing a jacket indoors.  Tolkienesque fantasy could fit that metaphor very well.  But there are four other people in the house who agree, so I suck it up and move on with my day.  I don’t accuse them of oppressing the working class.

I’ve read some great steampunk, some good steampunk, and some shitty steampunk.  The latter category is much larger than I would prefer, but 90% of every genre is crap, so why the need to jump on one poor little sub-genre over having a few shity books, or books that disagreed with your politics by having a few noblemen protrayed in a positive light?  Nobody is making you read this, and I don’t know very many other readers or writers who would prefer to live in the 19th century because they loved the last steampunk story they read.

 
 

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The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?

 

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Not Every Fairy Wears Leather

Urban fantasy has swallowed up a great number of mythical and paranormal creatures.  Some are well-digested, and any elf or fairy or vampire could be switched with the other and no one would care.  And some sit in UF’s stomach like a wad of flower stems and by Maab you’d better not call a fairy an elf or a gnome a dwarf.  But for the most part both are domesticated, tamed, adpated to ciy life.  Even the elves wear black leather.

I’m not trying to take potshots at UF, mind you.  It’s just that when the only difference between a were-jaguar and a were-rat is that one’s got wide, green eyes and the other beady, black ones, you have to wonder what’s the point?

Thankfully, as popular as UF is, and as many mythologies it has cut into pieces and devoured, the wild ones are still out there.  They don’t play by human rules, or reason by human logic, and they certainly don’t angst over hot little teens and twenty-somethings like there’s no one of their own species to lust after.

For example, here’s a lovely little fairy story, from Beneath Ceaseless Skies: More Full of Weeping than You Can Understand by Rosamund Hodge.  No black leathers or “tough” cookies here.  And no schmexy fairy lovin’, either.

Look out for my next post, where I bitch even more about how UF has homogenized fantasy literature, and turned it into a bland slurry of empty names and pasty skin.  And it doesn’t matter if you call them “elves”, “fae”, “faeries”, “fairies”, “changelings”, “fey”, “fay” “feyries”, “brownies”, “goblins”, “vampires”, “werewolves”, “lycanthropes”, “shapeshifters”, whatever, they’re still all the same.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2010 in atsiko, Fantasy, Rants, Urban Fantasy

 

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