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Posts tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Characters’ Age: Musings on How it Affects Writing

In the western world, we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and I suppose that’s understandable. We naturally gravitate towards characters who are young, healthy, vibrant, powerful, and exciting. And yet, some of my favorite characters in fiction (e.g. M. John Harrison’s teugis-Cromis, Ian McDonald’s Georgios Ferentinou, or John Scalzi’s John Perry) are the exact opposite: they’re old, often sickly, damaged, and (superficially) weak. And yet despite their age and infirmity, they become memorable and compelling characters. (since a book I’m currently shopping to agents has an eighty-five year old protagonist, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently)

The protagonist’s age is central to every dimension of their story. There is nothing — literally, nothing — that their age does not affect. Whether we’re writing realistic fiction, space opera, or secondary world fantasy, our protagonist’s age will affect the story’s broad plot, the techniques through which we build our world, the style of dialog, and even the specific word choices we make in our narrative.

Age and Plausibility

Let’s first look at age’s interaction with our protagonist’s background. Would you trust your brain to a fourteen year old neurosurgeon? Or would you get into a starship captained by a ten year old? Probably not. At least, not without some hefty assurances that you’re not about to commit suicide. When we consider the role our character plays in their society, we need to run a basic plausibility check. If the character’s age and role stretches that plausibility, then we need to ensure that we provide adequate justification for that divergence.

One of the better examples of this I’ve seen takes place in Philip Reeve’s madcap middle-grade space adventure, Larklight. There, we meet a fifteen year old space pirate captain named Jack Havock. Of course, Larklight is aimed at children…which is good, ’cause there are few readers who call out plausibility BS faster than a ten year old. And the idea that a fifteen year old might find himself a space pirate — and a space pirate captain, no less — obviously stretches credulity. But Reeve makes it plausible both through how he depicts Jack Havock’s actions (while still a child, in a crunch he behaves very responsibly) and through the back story he shows the reader.

A counter-example, where I felt a character’s age worked less well, was Ian McDonald’s recent YA debut Planesrunner where McDonald’s teenage protagonist is shown to be preternaturally skilled at just about everything he puts his mind to. McDonald is too experienced a writer to ask us to make the leap in plausibility unaided: he does provide explanations that justify Everett Singh’s abilities. I might have easily believed Everett to be a savant quantum physicist. Or a naturally gifted soccer player. Or a superb chef. But all three? That suggests plot-oriented convenience, and strains plausibility. Because each of those skills takes time to master…time that a teenager simply hasn’t had yet.

The same plausibility gap works in the opposite direction. In my aforementioned WIP, my protagonist is an eighty-five year old named Johann von Kempelen (yeah, the guy who invented the Mechanical Turk…’cause who else would you want as a clockwork emperor’s physician?). In this case, making him a young man would have stretched credulity on two fronts: first, his job is to be the personal engineer to the emperor. He is responsible for keeping the emperor ticking. That’s not a job you get at a young age, regardless of how fantastical the world is or how talented the engineer. Second, the real-life von Kempelen actually lived in the 18th century. But my alternate history is set in the 19th century. So to make that alternate history less-credibility-stretching, I decided to keep him an old man (even though, in reality, by 1885 he was long dead). Keeping von Kempelen old prevented a plausibility gap, and simultaneously better allowed me to explore the philosophical themes of the book.

In Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (which I discussed here), his protagonist is also an old man, in this case an aging ghul-hunter. On a superficial, sword-and-sorcery action-oriented level, Ahmed did not need Doctor Adoulla Makhslood to be an old man. He could have made him an inexperienced young ghul-hunter, eager to prove himself. Or he could have had him a ghul-hunter in his prime. Any of these choices would have been equally plausible given the overall shape of his story. But they would have completely changed the themes explored, the story’s emotional trajectory, and the technical way in which the story was told.

Age, Actions, and Reactions

Have you ever seen old people fight? I mean, physically? They move differently from the ways teenagers do. There are many reasons for that, some physiological, some psychological, but the bottom line is that a badass move we might pull off at twenty is not something we’re likely to succeed at when we’re sixty. As a result, the character’s age completely changes the way action sequences are depicted. Movement slows and becomes more deliberate, reaction times increase. The characters’ movements in an action sequence, the choices they make, the way they react to danger, all of those will be different based upon their age and whatever infirmities might come with it.

The same holds true for a character’s emotional reactions to events. I react to events completely differently today than I did at the age of sixteen (thank god). That’s one of the realities of aging. And it is one that we need to bear in mind when constructing our characters.

Nnedi Okorafor handles this brilliantly in Who Fears Death? (which I wrote about here). Her heroine, Onyesonwu, is relatively young. And she acts her age, with all of the high-strung emotion that entails. Reading the book, her choices made me gnash my teeth in frustration…but that didn’t mean they were “wrong” for the character: they were exactly the choices Onyesonwu would make. If she were fifteen years older, she would likely have taken a completely different path. But the character worked because her choices – however frustrating they might have been – were realistic given her emotional makeup and maturity.

Equally well-done in this regards is Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems. If you haven’t seen it, check it out: whether you have kids or not (I don’t), you will find it absolutely charming. The picture book centers around a child who loses her favorite stuffed animal (the titular Knuffle Bunny). What makes this book stand out is that it focuses just as much on the father’s reaction as on the child’s, and Willems manages to grasp both the child’s frustration and fear, and her father’s panic and guilt (so well that we feel the story must be autobiographical). Both reactions are determined by the characters’ ages…and both are rendered in text and illustration perfectly.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Age and Its Relationship to Prose and Themes

There’s a school of thought that says a well-rendered character needs to grow and change over the course of a book. And this is true. But the trajectory of that growth differs based on the character’s age. All characters, regardless of their age, have some sort of back story that informs everything about the character, their perceptions, their values, their opinions, and their voice. However, when writing older characters there needs to be more of that back story, with all of the ups and downs that a full life demands.

The reader doesn’t need to see it, unless it somehow directly affects the events of the story. But we as writers need to know it, because the choices our characters made yesterday affect the choices they’ll make today. For example, if we’re writing first person or close third person, characters are going to notice and react to different smells, colors, textures, tastes based upon their previous experiences. Does the character notice a particular scent? Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, followed closely by taste. How a character reacts to it (and what else a character notices) should be informed by their earlier experiences.

So should the choices they make. A more mature character is going to grow and change differently from how a teenager would. That’s not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s just that a more mature character will already have grown and learned many of life’s lessons. This dimension of character growth is, I think, more difficult for more mature characters. For the character’s emotional arc, I think the trick is to identify what lessons they failed to learn before the events of the story.

Saladin Ahmed does an excellent job of this in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Adoulla’s emotional journey centers around his failed relationship with a mature, strong-willed woman. He “failed” to learn a lesson about priorities in his younger days (or made choices that he has since come to regret), and the emotional arc of the story focuses on his realization of this fact and his rectification of that mistake. This puts into conflict two “goods” against each other: his duty as a ghul-hunter, and his love for Miri. This makes for a poignant emotional conflict. And a believable one for a character of his age.

Age Handled Well

I’ve mentioned a couple of books where I think characters’ ages are handled particularly well. But there are others which I also wanted to give shout outs to. I’ve mentioned Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: if Scrooge wasn’t an old man, the book would have no meaning. Hugo’s Les Miserables also works precisely because of its interplay between the emotional arcs of youth (Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Enjolras) and age (Valjean, Javert, the Thenardiers). And last but not least, John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big also only works because of the characters’ ages: the growth and evolution of Smoky Barnable and the Drinkwater clan only works because of their (sometimes purposefully indeterminate) ages.

What are some other examples that you think handle characters of different (or unusual) ages well?

An Argument for Writing Characters You Don’t Like

I’ve written before about some of the differences between novels and short stories, but for the past several days one of those differences has been sitting in the forefront of my mind: character. With only several thousand words to work with in a short story, there just isn’t space to really develop more than one character. But a novel needs at least a handful of well-defined characters, and the more complex the story’s plot, the more complex and varied the characters need to be.

My current WIP is more complex than any of the other (even novel-length) stories I’ve written before. With a Byzantine plot swirling with clockwork diplomacy, revolutionary intrigue, assassination, and Great Powers espionage, I’m juggling a more varied cast of characters than I’ve managed before. It’s hard work keeping their motivations straight, their voices distinct, and their reactions true. And while I would love to have coffee or play a game of chess with some of these people, others I’d want to throttle. And that brings me to the crux of the issue that I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two: how to tell a story from the perspective of a character that I don’t like?

Unsympathetic perspective characters are nothing new. They span a spectrum from the truly vile who we come to like despite our best instincts, like Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Then there’s Charles Dickens’ amoral but ultimately redeemable Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). More true to life, the real Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life comes across as unsettling today. And Gregory Maguire spends pretty much all of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West humanizing an erstwhile villain. And finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death), whose heart is in the right place, but whose personality often made me gnash my teeth in frustration.

Each of these authors uses a different technique. Nabokov fills the book with Humbert Humbert: the monster in a very real sense transcends the role of narrator or memoirist. Every single word, every punctuation point, and every pause between sentences is filtered through the all-too-human mind of Humbert Humbert. By drawing us in through such a unique and compelling voice, Nabokov slides in Humbert’s vile nature almost surreptitiously. It is subtle, and oily, and all too awe-inspiringly impressive. Thankfully my current WIP lacks an unrepentant, irredeemable Humbert-esque villain, and so I won’t have to try pulling this off (Yet! I’ve got another book I want to write someday where I’ll hopefully give it a shot…just because it’ll be a lot of fun to try!).

But the unsympathetic Sidney Carton, the zealous Emma Goldman, the tragic Elphaba, and the quick-to-anger Onyesonwu all have at least one central trait fundamentally tied up in their very nature that shines pure and noble. The traits might vary across the characters, and the authors may choose to present them using different techniques, but for all of their pettiness, their villainy, their zealotry, and their fury there remains something inherently noble about them.

Dickens paints Carton as a professionally-stunted, self-indulgent alcoholic. We can see his nobility in his reaction to Lucie Manette, and in his self-deprecating gallows humor. He is drawn in stark opposition to his double: Charles Darnay, whose inner nobility is readily apparent and who fails to evidence the slightest doubt in himself. By showing us Carton’s struggle, by showing us his doubts, Dickens makes us identify with Carton and look past the superficially unsympathetic traits: his biting humor, his self-pity, his self-indulgence. He is the underdog, and we want to give him a firm kick because we know that Carton is worth more, even if he does not realize it himself until the very end.

Emma Goldman – an actual historical personage – was as complicated as any real individual could be, and I believe her positive and negative traits stem from the very same root. Her autobiography paints a picture of an unsettling and strangely compelling zealot. Throughout her amazing life, she was an unrepentant revolutionary: mere facts and science would not get in the way of her convictions! She practiced what she preached, both politically and in her personal life. She forced herself to live true to her mission, even when it caused her much heartache. This unwavering belief in her revolution – however misguided, misattributed, or wasted – offers her a nobility that her (more hypocritical) contemporaries lacked. Goldman remains an unsettling person, and while I cannot agree with her views, I can respect the lifelong commitment that speaks so clearly through her words.

Maguire shows us the Wicked Witch’s perspective in Wicked. He takes pains to show the development of a conflicted character, with noble intentions that just work out unfortunately. Elphaba’s primary flaw is that she has human failings, of which her quickness to anger and her father-issues are just two examples. In many ways, I always found the book to be almost a revisionist apologia for the Wicked Witch, but Maguire makes Elphaba’s tragic rise and fall compelling precisely by showing us her internal rationalizations and the noble intentions that went so wrong.

And Okorafor introduces us to Onyesonwu, whose intentions are noble, whose heart is pure, but whose failing is simply that of being too quick to anger. Alone of the characters I’ve mentioned in this post, I do not believe we are ever for a moment meant to believe her unsympathetic. Okorafor makes us feel deeply for Onyesonwu. We meet her as a young girl, and we are shown painfully the development of her defensiveness character. We understand how she came to have that defensiveness. We understand that her anger is a part of her, and that in fact it helps her with her magic. I consider her “unsympathetic” simply because of how infuriating I found her. I wanted to tell her to get a grip: that her anger would hurt more than it helped. But the root of my frustration with the character was my understanding of what had made her: through an understanding how she developed into the strong, angry young woman she became, Okorafor grounded Onyesonwu’s “unsympathetic” traits in sympathy: she made the character so sympathetic that I recognize her flaws and want to help her learn to deal with her flaws.

This is a technique frequently used in YA (I suspect it may come naturally to Okorafor, considering her earlier experiences in YA). Maybe it means I’m getting old, that the little foibles of human emotion that are so frustrating to me come so naturally to teenagers. Harumph. Those kids should get off my lawn. Nonetheless, I can appreciate it when an author pulls it off the way Okorafor has, and I can also see how introducing that flaw was natural to the character, given her history. The net result makes me more invested in the character, thus raising my engagement with the whole story.

And that – I think – is what unsympathetic perspective characters ultimately do. They make us invest more in the story, either because we root for the underdog (Carton), respect misguided nobility (Goldman), lament tragic failure (Elphaba), or sympathize with the source of the characters’ flaws (Onyesonwu).

What are some of your favorite unsympathetic characters? And how did their authors make them appeal to you?

The Uses of Food in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

Thanksgiving’s secular ethos built around food, family, and friends (three things I love) make this my favorite holiday of the year. Superficially, it’s all about the great feast centered around the Thanksgiving turkey, and so I thought why not post about how food is used in science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

The Difficulties with Food

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are evolutionarily wired to pay attention to food. That makes it very difficult for food to appear in a story or scene without becoming a major facet. Genre films use the visual of food to great effect: who can forget the scene in The Return of the King when Denethor is feasting during the charge for Osgiliath? Or the dinner scene in Beetlejuice? And let’s not forget those movies that are all about the dangers of late night snacking: Gremlins and Gremlins 2?

The filmmakers all knew that the instant food appears on screen, at least for a moment, our eyes are naturally drawn to it, our focus shifts and – depending on how it’s depicted – our mouths start watering. It’s a Pavlovian response, and the best film-makers make use of it in their movie making. The same thing happens when we read. The feast-time strategy session is a trope of epic fantasy, and much horror (including the recent zombie resurgence) is centered around food (of one sort or another). Avoiding the cliche and making food a seamless, important part of the story is much more difficult. Too little focus, and the food becomes incidental, a cliche distraction. Too much focus, and the food becomes the point of the scene (which sometimes is what you want).

So how does genre fiction actually make use of food? Well, from a brief persual of my bookshelves, it seems that I can see four different uses:

  1. As a metaphor.
  2. As a characterization device.
  3. As a distancing device.
  4. As imagery of the sublime.

Food as a Metaphor

This is one of the more obvious uses, but can be quite difficult to do tastefully. Consider two different works and their metaphoric use of food:

A Christmas Carol
, by Charles Dickens

Dandelion Wine
, by Ray Bradbury

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses dinner as symbols of class division. The Spirit of Christmas Present shows us many people eating on Christmas Eve, the most memorable of which is surely the Cratchit’s feast. Poor, down-trodden Bob Cratchit and his family put together a lovely spread. Dickens knows that food is not just about the meal itself, but about the way it is presented, the way it is served, the company in which it is enjoyed. He puts all of this to mouth-watering use as he describes their (meager) fare of Christmas goose and pudding:

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds, a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course – and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot, Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigor, Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce, Martha dusted the hot plates, Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table, the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and, mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped.

Setting up the table, laying out the plates, anticipating the taste, these are the rituals of most any family. The “pre-game” sets the mood, establishes the characters, the joy of a holiday meal. Note how Dickens points out that geese are not that rare, that they are easy to be had…but that the Cratchits still rarely enjoy them: “you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds…and in truth it was something very like it in that house“. Or consider how the Cratchits react to the pudding:

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly, too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that, now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

The metaphor works here because Dickens does not beat us over the head with it. Granted, he beats us over the head with Scrooge’s mistreatment of Cratchit. But when describing the scene with the food, he implies its meaning quite rightly. The fact that the Cratchits eat a poor man’s meal are subtly implied, not stated. The focus is not on the meagerness of their meal: the text instead focuses on their dignity under duress, and that is what makes the metaphor effective. When, after his ordeal, Scrooge sends them the giant Christmas turkey (“It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim.“) the contrast with the goose and the small pudding resonates that much more strongly because it is not pointed out to the reader.

Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine uses a very different tact. Unlike Dickens, Bradbury hands us the key to his metaphor directly:

Danelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.

The entire third chapter of Dandelion Wine describes how the wine represents the joys of summer, bottled to bring a taste of summer into the cold winter months. With a book so nostalgic, the book itself represents an analogous metaphor. Just as the bottles of dandelion wine bring summer into winter, so too does the book itself bring magical childhood into adult life. Both Dickens and Bradbury use metaphor: one by implication and understatement, the other explicitly and structurally. Other authors in genre use food metaphors more obliquely (Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rosetti) but I find Dickens’ and Bradbury’s methods the most memorable.

Food as Characterization

One of my favorite scenes involving food takes place in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (first of his Gormenghast novels). The scene is a conversation between the ruthlessly ambitious social-climber Steerpike, the somewhat embittered Dr. Prunesquallor, the flighty but loving Fuchsia, and her shattered Nannie Slagg. In this scene, Steerpike endeavors to secure employment with Doctor Prunesquallor, and has coerced Fuchsia and Nannie Slagg into bringing him to the good doctor.

They do not eat at this meeting, but they do drink. And Peake uses the act of drinking to further establish his characters. Western culture associates certain traits with certain alcohols. Advertisers rely on this when crafting their brand messages: think of the archetypal images you see in the typical whiskey ad. Peake was a master of characterization (arguably, his trilogy is one long study in characterization), and he knew that he could use his characters’ chosen libations as a window into their souls:

‘Drink, my Fuchsia dear,’ [Prunesquallor] said. ‘Drink to all those things that you love best. I know. I know,’ he added with his hands folded at his chin again. ‘Drink to everything that’s bright and glossy. Drink to the Coloured Things.’

Fuchsia nodded her head unsmilingly at the toast and took a gulp. She looked up at the Doctor very seriously. ‘It’s nice,’ she said. ‘I like elderberry wine. Do you like your drink, Nannie?’

Mrs. Slagg very nearly spilt her port over the arm of the chair when she heard herself addressed. She nodded her head violently.

‘And now for the brandy,’ said the Doctor. ‘The brandy for Master…Master…’

‘Steerpike,’ said the youth. ‘My name is Steerpike, sir.’

The whole scene goes on for some paragraphs more. Fuchsia is confused, and easily distracted, and whether this is a result of the wine or her own nature is a matter of conjecture. Slagg falls asleep. Prunesquallor does not even so much as taste his cognac. And Steerpike? Steerpike keeps his distance. Verbally, he remains aloof and speaks and sips only to underline the specific points of his dialog and as a tool to help him achieve his goals. The differences in what they drink, and the differences in how they drink it, create a perfect alignment between character and action. If the characters all drank the same way (sipped, gulped, or ignored their glasses), we would finish the passage with a weaker understanding. If they were all drinking sherry, or wine, or beer, so too we would have a less strongly-formed sense of the characters. Using such half-measures would have weakened the unity between their words and deeds. But Peake draws characters too well for that.

Food as a Distancing Device

Food is often used for comedic/tragic effect in science fiction (“It’s a cookbook! It’s a cookbook!”). But perhaps one of the best ways that it is used is as a distancing device. The most memorable (for me) scene in Julie E. Czerneda’s Survival is when the heroine Mac finds herself aboard a Dhryn (alien) spaceship. In order for the rest of the book (and the rest of the series) to work, Czerneda needs to ensure that we view the Dhryn as aliens. They need to have alien value systems, alien biologies, alien everything, to establish that sense of Other.

When Mac first comes aboard the ship, there are no Dhryn to be seen. Instead, she is alone in her quarters, and must figure out how she is to eat and drink. She is offered what is – ostensibly – food, but it is so unlike any food she has ever seen that she has no way of knowing if it is even edible (for humans). With no food, and no water, and no ability to communicate with her hosts she finds herself in dire straits, until she attempts the following experiment:

Step one. After her experiment with the Dhryn shower, Mac wasn’t going to risk herself without due care. She chose the outside of her left arm as most expendable and pressed it against one of the cylinders.

It felt cold, which didn’t mean it was chilled. Room temperature, Mac concluded. She examined the skin that had touched the food. No reddening or swelling. She brought her forearm close to her nostrils and sniffed.

Blah! Mac wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t sure if it smelled more like hot tar or sulfur. It certainly didn’t smell edible.

Step two. She picked up one of the cylinders, doing her best not to react to its slimy feel or rubbery consistency, and brought it to her mouth. Slowly, fighting the urge to vomit – a potentially disastrous loss of fluid – she stuck out her tongue and touched it to the side of the cylinder.


Her tongue might be too dry. Mac brought her tongue back inside her mouth, letting its tip contact what saliva she had left, then, cautiously, she moved that saliva around so it contacted all the taste buds on her tongue.

BLAH! Mac barely succeeded in keeping her gorge in her throat. God, it was bitter. Putting down the cylinder, she crushed a bit of nutrient bar in her hand and licked up the crumbs. The sweetness helped, barely. She resisted the urge to take another sip. Thirty minutes until her next.

Step three. Mac breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth, centering herself, slowing her heart rate from frantic to tolerably terrified. Then she picked up a cylinder and took a bite.

BITTER! Before she could spit it out, moist sweetness flooded her senses as her teeth fully closed. Startled, she poked the jellylike msas around in her mouth. A tang of bitterness remained, but the overall impression was of having bitten off a piece of…

…overripe banana. Not that flavor, but the same consistency and texture. This taste was complex, more spicy than bland, and seemed to change as the material sat in her mouth. A good sign, Mac thought, chewing cautiously. The enzyme in her saliva was acting on what had to be carbohydrate. The moisture in the mouthful was more than welcome.

She swallowed. When nothing worse happened than the impact of a mouthful thudding into her empty stomach, Mac examined the cylinder. Where she’d bitten it, glistening material was slowly oozing onto her hand, as if through a hole.

Mac laughed. If the sound had a tinge of hysteria to it, she felt entitled. “I ate the damn wrapper,” she said, wiping her eyes.

The use of humor is an effective tool, a way of releasing the tension built up in the preceding pages. The systematic, experimental nature of the meal is in keeping with the character’s profession (scientist). And the description of the food itself is sufficiently alien that up until that last sentence, we can believe that this is whatever food the Dhryn normally eat. An effective way of establishing Mac as the only human aboard this very alien starship headed for alien lands.

Food as the Sublime

The final way for food to be used is as sublime imagery. There are many ways to do that, whether in genre or out of genre. But in genre, horror stories probably do this most frequently. A disturbingly fun example that makes me squirm whenever I read it is Micaela Morrissette’s Wendigo, published in Weird Tales. The whole story is one long description of banquets, and cooking, and feasting. But Morrissette’s language artfully sets up images that are unsettling, disturbing, but still clearly food that her character finds sumptuous:

She swallowed the wine that paused in her mouth, clung there, spreading itself. She swallowed the black soup: thin, sour broth swimming with clots that trailed delicate filaments. She swallowed the tempura of cobra lily, and, inside its cup, the pale, limp moth that seemed to sigh and dissolve on her tongue. When the songbirds were served, her gracious companion, sensing her confusion, placed a steadying hand on the back of her neck and guided her head under the starched napkin. She ate the scorching meat, needled with tiny bones her teeth had splintered. She felt little ruptures where they scratched her throat. Her companion was missing the fifth and second fingertips of his right hand, the entire middle finger of his left. Bluntly, blindly, fondly, the stubs knocked against her skin. The manservant brought the baby octopi in shallow bowls filled with, her host informed the company, vibrio fischeri, which sent a faint gold-green luminescence throughout the water. She dipped an octopus in the spicy sauce and trapped it lightly between her teeth. Its small heavings and sucks brushed against the pads of her cheeks like tiny kisses. She kissed back.

The imagery is sublime, and we’re drawn along with its magic. But what gradually becomes clear is that the sublime in this case is horrific, as the story descends into a rivetingly unsettling tale of cannibalism. This is horror at its finest, using sublime imagery to simultaneously repulse the reader and keep them rapt.

Fun Food Links in Conclusion

So now that we’ve talked about how science fiction, fantasy and horror often use food, maybe as you’re enjoying Thanksgiving this week you can benefit from some fun science fictional recipes and other fun resources:

I hope you’ll be having some fantastic food this week, and above all else sharing it with your family and friends!


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