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No New Ideas

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Trade News | July 23, 2010 |


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It's going to be a crowded year; tickets sold out six months ago, and the first panels on Thursday morning are filled to the brim. We're not talking the giant halls where the studios camp out and show off trailers to six thousand people at a time who had to wait in a four hour line in the sun. Not those Rube Goldberg versions of YouTube. Even the little ones are packed.

The Power of Myth is a panel discussion in one of the smaller rooms, eight novelists crammed elbow to elbow on a little stage with the owner of a local sci-fi bookstore moderating their discussion. Here's the cut and paste list of the authors: Amber Benson (the Calliope Reaper-Jones Novels), Esther Friesner (Sphinx's Princess), Thomas Greanias (The Promised War), Lev Grossman (The Magicians), Les Klinger (editor, The New Annotated Dracula), Seanan McGuire (the October Daye novels), Michael Scott (the Secret of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series), and Thomas Sniegoski (Where Angels Fear to Tread). Yes, that's Amber Benson of "Buffy" fame who at last count is a beautiful actress, an independent director, and a novelist as well, in addition to having had the chance to make out on occasion with Alyson Hannigan. In other words, she did something spectacular in a past life to earn this one.

I sit next to a young woman in an enormous bright orange dress, who tells me that she's there as Princess Daisy. "It's a bit of pain, but it's great crossing the street because no one can miss me," she explains, which makes sense since her outfit looks like a cross between a carrot and a traffic cone. "Unless Bowser is driving," I say. "He'd run you down."

The moderator pauses just as she begins the introduction to ask "Is it bad that the wall behind me is buzzing?"

Someone calls out from the audience "something is trying to come through!"

Panels are simple when you've got eight people and only fifty minutes. The moderator asks a question, each person gets to answer it. That process repeats once, and then five or six audience questions are entertained. When you have a good panel, it's enthralling. When you have a bad one, you get bored listening to each person ramble inarticulately while you wait for the couple of good speakers to get their turn. This panel was a very strong one.

Each author talked a bit about how they had gotten into mythology in the first place and what had drawn them to it. The moderator then asked each of the authors to talk about a fascinating story out of mythology that each had never heard of before beginning to research myths as an adult. This was the heart of the discussion, a miscellany of cultural tidbits to make someone addicted to hitting "random page" on Wikipedia positively slaver.

Esther Friesner talked about the pre-Columbian myths of the creation of women, refusing to say more than "woodpeckers were involved, it was the strangest thing I ever read." Thomas Greanias noted that underneath Washington DC are miles and miles of tunnels, many of which date back to before Europeans arrived in America, and which have not been fully mapped or secured even though they are underneath the capitol. He went on to talk about the archaeological discoveries of ancient Jericho, the city in which every living thing was burned by the ancient Israelites in one of the more happy-go-lucky portions of the Old Testament. Archaeologists found the oldest known repository of tuberculosis in that bone yard, snapping an ancient massacre into new focus as not simple butchery, but butchery aimed at survival.

Thomas Sniegoski talked about learning that in obscure Christian mythology a class of angels known as Nephilim were the children of men and angels, and that the great flood was intended as a genocide of those bastard offspring. One author spoke about how there are many folk stories that survived in emigrant populations but disappeared in their native lands, of tales of Banshees and Little People that were transported to America during the great Irish potato famine but no one remained to tell those particular tales anymore in Ireland proper. Seanan McGuire said that her grandmother was Roma from Wallachia, and would tell tales half grafted together from old folklore and modern life, of how the little people if angered would sneak into your home to steal the microwave. "Grandma wouldn't talk without pizza and vodka. I got a whole book out of her on Roma folktales, but couldn't trust any of it because she was so drunk."

The audience got a turn to ask questions, though only a couple stuck out. One audience member asked why authors drew so much on mythology without coming up with original ideas. Michael Scott, taking time out of paper sales to write about vampires, said "There are no new ideas, but there are unique takes on old ideas by unique individuals. Twenty years ago someone told me 'the vampire novel is dead.'"

The final fan question challenged the writers: "Other than copyright, what is the difference between what you do and fan fiction?"

"Quality." One of the authors answered bluntly.

Seanan McGuire was more forgiving, noting that fan fiction took place entirely within the context of someone else's imagined world, but that original fiction created a new world, even if it drew upon elements of other worlds. She also noted that she had come up from the ranks of fan fiction and often could tell upon reading novels that they had started as fan fiction and morphed at some point into a truly independent work.

Amber Benson was even more encouraging, insisting that if you wanted to write, but just couldn't get over the first hump, that fan fiction was certainly a way to get going, "just write, just get your feet wet."

The moderator closed the session by interjecting, "That's a very generous comment given some of the Tara fan fic I've read."

The repeated theme that each writer kept coming back to, the one that resonated with the nature of the convention of itself, was the idea that even though we think of mythology as something old and dead, it is anything but. We learn old dry tales of Greek gods but usually don't notice that we're still telling the same stories with different names, with the details to fit our own cultural context a bit better. The movies we make, the novels we write, they're mythology in their own right, not just if they borrow liberally from the mythology of those long dead, but by their very nature. Mythology is the stories we tell over and over again to explain to ourselves why the world works the way it does. It's neither science nor religion, but in opposition to neither, it's the short hand way we explain things to our own minds, the metaphors we use to humanize the complex arithmetic of scientists and priests.


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