content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

The Evolution of The Ballad of Mulan

No one is quite sure when the story of Mulan was first told, or even first written down. But at some point—perhaps the 4th century, perhaps the 6th—someone decided to write down the sparse, evocative lines of “Mulan shi,” lines evocative enough to turn Mulan into one of the most popular figures in China: a skilled warrior, devoted family member, and emblem of virtue.

And oh yes, a kickass crossdresser.

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Herakles: The Ancient Superhero

It’s impossible to know exactly when stories of Herakles (Greek)/Hercules (Latin) began to be told. If we are to believe the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and we probably shouldn’t, Herakles lived more or less around 1300 B.C.E., founding various city states and royal lines in between fighting monsters, killing his children, taking away a tasty food source of divine liver from kindhearted, hungry eagles under the guise of “freeing” minor gods from unjust punishments, cross-dressing, and wrestling Death. This was the sort of thing that made for great stories, and by Herodotus’ time (5th century B.C.E.) the stories were widely told, not just in words, but in pottery, paint, mosaic, sculpture and stone—including the great temples raised in his honor, since by that time, Herakles was regarded as a god.

It’s possible that, as at least some 5th century Greeks believed, Herakles was based on some remote historical figure—possibly a man whose life was so filled with misfortune and bad luck that his contemporaries just assumed a goddess had to be after him—and that, like King Arthur years later, stories about him later grew in the telling, continually reshaped to suit the needs of each teller. It seems more likely, however, that Herakles was never more than a myth—quite possibly a myth with roots stretching back to hunter/gatherer days, later assumed to have a historical existence simply because so many ancient royal families found that convenient. (It always helps to have a hero and a god on the family tree.) His name, after all, suggests this: “Herakles”, or a hero originally connected to the great goddess Hera. Though by the time the tales were recorded, that connection was a relationship of pure hatred and spite.

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Forbidden Desire and Locked Doors: The Origins of “Rapunzel”

Stories of maidens locked into towers or behind walls litter European folklore, appearing in fairy tales, saints’ lives, and dubious histories and chronicles. In part, these tales echoed the real life experiences of women locked behind walls for one reason or another. Some women went willingly. Convent life, for instance, could offer not just a religious experience and spiritual comfort, but educational and artistic opportunities for many women. Other women did not.

But even the strictest convents and prisons did not completely remove these women from the world of men. Not even in the case of arguably the most famous fictional woman to be trapped in a tower, Rapunzel.

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Realism and Apocalypse: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Moment of Tenderness

So I’ve just finished reading The Moment of Tenderness, a collection of mostly unpublished stories by the late Madeleine L’Engle, and I’m not sure what to do, or what to tell you.

Let’s start, I guess, with a quick recap of Madeleine L’Engle. She’s best known for her visionary work A Wrinkle in Time, first published in 1962, and adapted twice into film. A Wrinkle in Time had four direct sequels—the equally visionary A Wind in the Door (1973), and the increasingly less visionary A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986) and An Acceptable Time (1989). She also wrote multiple novels for children and adults, which varied greatly in quality, and which sometimes included casual and not so casual racism, and which sometimes featured a rather alarming number of concentration camp survivors who all happened to be former members of the French Resistance or piano players or both who all happened to feel the need to remind Jews that other people, too, ended up in concentration camps.

[About the stories, and also COVID-19 and response]

A Weighty Sequel: Rewatching Pixar’s Toy Story 2

For decades, Disney executives never bothered with sequels, apart from the occasional follow-up to an unusual project (The Three Caballeros, which if not exactly a sequel, was meant to follow up Saludos Amigos), or cartoon short (the Winnie the Pooh cartoons in the 1960s.) But in the late 1980s, struggling for ideas that could squeak by the hostile eye of then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, animators proposed creating a full length animated sequel to the studio’s only real success from the 1970s—The Rescuers.

The result, The Rescuers Down Under, provided an opportunity for Disney to test out its new CAPS software, and if not exactly a box office blockbuster, did at least earn back its costs. And it happened to coincide with a sudden growth in the VCR market, along with cheaply made, direct-to-video films. The combination gave Disney executives an idea: cheap, direct to video sequels of their most popular films that could also be shown on their broadcast and cable networks.

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Rewatching Pixar’s A Bug’s Life

In its initial release, A Bug’s Life had the dubious fortune of getting released in a year with not one, but two computer animated films about bugs, a deliberately created rivalry that did neither film any favors. Since then, A Bug’s Life has had the dubious honor of being perhaps the least remembered of the Pixar films, and perhaps the least regarded—depending upon how you feel about the various Cars films and, more recently, The Good Dinosaur—rarely if ever listed among the Pixar “greats.” At the time, however, it was proof that just maybe Pixar could be more than a one film wonder.

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An Animated Experiment: Rewatching Pixar’s Toy Story

Pixar did not start out intending to make films. The company was founded back in the late 1970s as part of Lucasfilm, as a division called The Graphics Group, dedicated to exploring just how the still relatively new computers might be used to improve films. This, oh readers, was back not just in the days of floppy discs and the days when 1 meg of ram for a home computer was completely unheard of, but also things like punch cards and early DOS and….you know, just thinking about this is depressing. Let’s just say that although computers had potential—something George Lucas was among the first to recognize—they had a long way to go before they could transform films all that much—something George Lucas was a little less willing to recognize.

But even Lucas could recognize the limitations of computer technology at the time. Instead of trying to have his computer experts create the entire film, he sent them to work with one of the Lucasfilm subsidiaries: Industrial Light and Magic. A subsidiary initially founded to help create the special effects sequences in Star Wars (1977), Industrial Light and Magic soon found itself juggling numerous projects from other film studios impressed by their digital effects and rendering work, and trying to find ways both to improve on this work and—a biggie—save money while doing so.

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Needs More Dragon Astronauts: The White Dragon, Part Four

Most of The White Dragon is about, well, a very special white dragon, and his incredibly privileged and almost as incredibly whiny rider, Lord Jaxom of Ruatha Hold. Heavy on adventures and illnesses and questionable romance, the story of Jaxom and Ruth helped land the book on The New York Times Best Seller list.

But the more interesting story has nothing to do with Jaxom and Ruth, and everything to do with how the people of Pern are reacting both to the ongoing danger of Thread, an alien organism that attacks them on a regular basis, and the ongoing, more mundane environmental threats of overpopulation and resource deprivation.

Oh, and finding out just who the people of Pern really are.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Where Are All Pern’s Medical Folks? The White Dragon: Part Three

As I reread these Pern books, I keep asking myself, how does this all work? I’m not just talking about the dragons, although many of the questions often left unexplored by the series are associated with dragons. For instance, how, exactly, is a planet regularly whacked by massive environmental and habitat damage supporting so many huge apex predators? Why do the people of Pern so frequently fail to utilize all of the abilities of said apex predators? And beyond the dragons—really, just how does a world of people and dragons work?

I can’t say that The White Dragon helps all that much with answering any of these questions—although it does show us several glimpses of actual farm work, somewhat unusual for this series. It also gives us a pretty solid look at the health care system on Pern.

And I gotta say, I’m unimpressed.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

When Even a Delightful Dragon Can’t Quite Cover Up the Misogyny: The White Dragon, Part Two

For the most part, Anne McCaffrey’s first few Pern books had focused on humans, not dragons. Indeed, the Harper Hall Trilogy (the side trilogy written for a young adult audience) had barely included dragons at all, instead focusing on Harpers—the entertainers, teachers, journalists and spies of Pern—and fire-lizards, the adorable little miniature dragons who made such delightful pets. That changed in The White Dragon, where, for the first time, McCaffrey allowed a dragon to be a central character.

Mostly because, as the second part of The White Dragon emphasizes, Ruth is an unusually talented dragon.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Decidedly Privileged Hero: The White Dragon, Part One

By her own admission, Anne McCaffrey had found Dragonquest (1971) very difficult to write, to the point where she more or less burned down the first draft and started again. Which understandably did not make her overly inclined to start writing its sequel—especially since she had other non-dragon books to write. But five years later she published a companion novel aimed at younger readers, Dragonsong (1976), swiftly followed by a sequel, Dragonsinger (1977), both set during the time of Dragonquest.

She clearly still had more to say about dragons.

This eventually led to a short story, “A Time When,” published by the New England Science Fiction Association in 1975, which McCaffrey expanded into a novel, The White Dragon (1978), one of the first science fiction books to land on The New York Times Best Seller list.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Return to Environmentalism: Dragonquest, Part Four

On its surface, Dragonquest is mostly a novel about social change (and dragons) and resisting social change (and dragons) and exploring some not-entirely-thought-out elements of its predecessor, Dragonflight (like dragons).

But Dragonquest was also written during a period of growing concerns about environmental threats—and arguments about how to handle these environmental threats. So it’s perhaps not surprising that a novel which on the surface is about duels! dragon deaths! adorable little mini-dragons! questionable gender relationships! turns out, in the end, to be about environmental threats—and arguments about how to handle them.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Fairy Tale of Dubious Origin: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”

In Western literature, the best known story of the Arabic The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known to English readers as The Arabian Nights, is arguably “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” The classic rags to riches story of a boy and a magic lamp has been told and retold numerous times in numerous media, from paintings to poems to novels to films, helped popularize the concept of “genies” for European readers, and has even been used to sell certain types of oil lamps.

What’s great about all of this is that “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” isn’t actually in any of the original Arabic collections of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights at all. Also, it may not be Arabic, but French.

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Defending Kylara: Dragonquest, Part Three

Sure, Impressing a dragon and becoming one of the dragonriders of Pern might seem like the ultimate wish fulfillment. I mean, a dragon! A dragon that can take you anywhere and anywhen! A dragon that will share your every thought and always, always love you, ensuring that you will never be alone again.

Can you imagine losing something like this, though?

You could well go insane… as Anne McCaffrey describes in Dragonquest.

Buckle up, everyone. This might not be an entirely pleasant post.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

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