Sunday, November 6, 2016

Music, mounds, and atheists: A World Fantasy roundup.

Last week at this time, Kitty and I were wending our way across Pennsylvania, coming home from this year's World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio. So this week, I thought I'd mention a couple of convention highlights before they recede into my memory.

Convention panels, I find, are hit-or-miss. Sometimes you get a really super-fantastic panel that's into having a conversation about the topic, both with each other and with the audience; and sometimes you get a panel with a blowhard who considers himself an expert on the topic and/or simply doesn't know when to shut up. My editor Suzu Strayer, who attended the conference with me, chalks some of this up to a lack of intellectual rigor: panelists, she maintains, should be required to back up their assertions by citing facts. That sounds like an awful lot of work to me. All I really expect from a panel is to have my thought processes kicked a little -- and to be entertained.

Now that my criteria for judging have been established, my two favorite panels (besides the one I was on) at this year's convention were "Fantasy and Music" and "Atheist Fantasy: Is God Dead?"

First, the music panel. The entertainment factor was established from the outset, when the panelists "tuned up" vocally. That was followed by a discussion of the way writers use music in their works of fantasy. I picked up one tip that I wish I'd known about before I wrote SwanSong: Mercedes Lackey puts the full lyrics to the songs her characters sing at the back of each novel, and only uses pertinent portions of each song in the main part of the story. That was followed by a discussion of authors, or fans, who have written music to go along with the songs in novels.

I was fascinated by a quick mention by Fred Durbin (I think) of the Shepard tone, which sent me Googling because I had never heard of it before. It's an aural illusion akin to Escher's famous staircase to nowhere -- you think you hear the music going up and up, endlessly, but it's not. (Here's more info on it, and how it was used in a Super Mario game.)

In nearly the same breath, he went on to talk about the tritone or devil's tone, known musically as an augmented 4th or diminished 5th. This is created by playing two notes together -- say, a C and an F# -- that create dissonance, a sound that leaves you dying for resolution to a prettier chord. (Wikipedia has some examples here, if you'd like to take a listen. Mental Floss has a much less technical discussion here.) Back in the Middle Ages, the Church prohibited the use of the tritone, as much because it was difficult to play as anything else. Today, you hear it a lot in heavy metal music and the blues, as well as in classical pieces when the composer is after something sinister.

Speaking of the Church: the atheist fantasy panel was scheduled, aptly, for Sunday morning. The question here is that if your world is full of good and evil, or even people who act on moral values, do you need to have gods in your story? Of course, someone can be morally good yet not be religious; morals are societal constructs that religion simply enforces. But if you have a character who is religious, do you have to have the gods show up? In the Pipe Woman Chronicles, my answer was yes; that was pretty much the point of the whole series. But in a different type of story, of course, the gods never have to make an appearance at all. The panel gave me some points to ponder for future novels.

And speaking of future novels, Suzu and I took a side trip on Saturday morning to find some mounds. Our first stop was the Shrum Mound, an Adena burial site in Columbus. The Adena lived from about 1000 B.C. to about 100 A.D., before the Hopewell, who built the Newark Earthworks. The Shrum Mound isn't on anybody's list of significant sites, but we thought it felt peaceful.

From there, we proceeded to Chillicothe and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. The site we visited, known as Mound City, originally had at least 23 mounds surrounded by a nearly square earthen wall. A number of the mounds were destroyed in World War I when the Army built Camp Sherman on the site, but some have been excavated by archaeologists and then rebuilt. In other words, the site is in nowhere near the shape that the Hopewell left it in; all the artifacts they buried with their dead have been dug up. Still, some things are authentic. In this photo, you can see a grassy mound on the left -- but beyond that, there's another one under the trees. The signage says the whole site was wooded like this when white settlers first found the site.

Besides the mounds, there's also a path down to the Scioto River. The route is one that the Hopewell would have taken to get from the river to Mound City. I believe all of the major Hopewell sites are situated along rivers or creeks, and archaeologists speculate that making the journey by river may have been part of a vision quest or coming-of-age ritual. In any case, the weather was beautiful, and I learned more stuff that may show up in the new series.

Which, by the way, is progressing. I passed 10,000 words today on the NaNo novel and I think it's going pretty well. I'll let you know next week if I still feel the same way.

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These moments of musical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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