April 30, 2008

Interview with William Morris

William Morris at A Motley Vision has posted an interview we did about the revised version of The Path of Dreams.

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April 28, 2008

Sex and the single Mormon

The conservative sexual mores depicted in The Path of Dreams might strike people--who didn't grown up in a conservative religious community--as an odd offshoot of one of those weird chastity movements.

Two recent threads on Mormon blogs do a good job of encapusating the moral themes in the novel. This autobiographical post (and the accompanying comments) on The Exponent nicely sums up the primary point of conflict in the first half of the novel:

Had I made my marriage decision based on practicalities–-financial and otherwise–-the wedding would have been held years later. But . . . I wanted very much to sleep with this man I loved and I knew [sex] would happen soon rather than later.

This thread on the By Common Consent blog proves the old writer's adage that the sure way to create drama about something is to place obstacles around it (Buffy providing the all-time classic example: sleep with your boyfriend and he literally turns into the devil).

When it comes to fiction, difficult is good. Not so much in real life, as Harvey Mansfield observes in his review of Sex and the Soul by Donna Freitas, where students at conservative religious schools (such as Connor and Elly)

often suffer deep anxiety in their search for a mate. The boys find it troublingly difficult to put off sex, and the girls are fearful that they will have failed in college if they do not get a "ring by spring" (of their senior year).

Still, the license of Sex and the City is dullsville in comparison. Though as illustrated here, these two extremes might share something in common. Quips Jeremy Lott, "Not having sex means talking about it constantly."

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April 27, 2008

"Shadow of the Moon" revisions

Chapter 60 / 8-1

TP is the TokyoPop translation. EW is my translation.

1. TP: She found it difficult to relax. For a while, she sat in the big room alone, thinking. Yet the single silver-embossed [1] chair was uncomfortable to sit on, and she feared getting her fingerprints on the sleek surface of the ornamented lacquer table, so there was no leaning on that.

EW: She had wanted to retreat to her room, give herself some time to think things out, but the ornate, overstuffed chairs were uncomfortable. The lacquered table was finished with mother of pearl and would show even a fingerprint if she touched it. She hesitated even to sit there with her chin in her hands. [2]

1.1. The adjective immediately modifying "chair" is one of those wonderful onomotopaeia, fuka-fuka shita, meaning "puffy" or "squashy."
1.2. LIT: "Would leave fingerprints if touched, [so] she hesitated even to rest her chin in her hands."

2. TP: The door to the smaller room was a thin three-paneled sliding door painted all over with an intricate floral design; [1] it folded up along one side of the opening. There was a step up at the doorway, and the rest of the room was hidden from view by a single hanging silk curtain. [2]

EW: The door partitioning the two rooms was folded back. The door was engraved with a delicate fretwork. As she stepped inside, the room became much bigger. Silk curtains hung down over a raised platform.

2.1. Although these fretworks often have floral designs, "floral" isn't specifically mentioned.
2.2. The TokyoPop version is less literal, but gets at the same essential meaning.

3. TP: Feeling very much out of place, [1] Yoko went to the large windows that stretched from floor to ceiling at one end of the main chamber. The window frames were intricately detailed, and the glass itself was brightly colored. [2] Beyond the gleaming panes she could see a terrace.

EW: Bored with it all, Youko opened the big window. The French doors reached from the floor to the ceiling. Stained glass filled the geometric patterns between the lattices. Beyond the doors was a wide balcony.

3.1. TokyoPop is using the literal translation, but my dictionaries list "bored (to death)" or "having nothing to do" as the primary definition. "With nothing else to do" might be better.
3.2. TokyoPop is being literal, "colored glass" instead of "stained glass."

4. TP: Opening the window farther, she stepped through it onto a large terrace, made of interconnected white stones, which hugged the curve of the building.

EW: The terrace, covered with white stone, ran around the circumference of the building. It was about as wide as a small courtyard.

LIT: "It was the approximate spaciousness of a small garden (or yard or compound)."

5. TP: The smile faded from Yoko's face. "I do, don't I? I had been wondering."
      Rakushun came to stand beside her. "The royal palace of Kei is in Gyouten, in the province of Yei . Goldenwave Palace , 'tis called."

EW: The smile disappeared from her face. "Yeah, I probably do."
      Rakushun stood next to Youko and like her gazed out over the ocean. "The palace in Kei is located in Gyouten, Ei Province. It's called Kinpa Palace , the Palace of Golden Waves ."

Youko doesn't say she was "wondering."

6. TP: Yoko nodded. She knew there had been a time when she would have dreamed of living in a palace like this, but now she found that [1] the idea really didn't interest her.

EW: It didn't peak her interest. She answered with a listless, "Huh." [2]

6.1. The additions are not in the original.
6.2. LIT: "She answered with a spiritless aizuchi." An aizuchi is "a sound given during a conversation to indicate comprehension."

7. TP: Yoko shivered. "I think so too.

EW: Youko nodded. "No doubt.

She only nods.

8. TP: You have to take the throne, if only to protect yourself-

EW: For your own good . . . .

The addition is not in the original.

9. TP: "I don't want anyone to think I made my decision out of desperation." Yoko laughed. "In the months after I came Over Here, I thought I might die at any moment. I made it through, though. I was lucky. So you see, I was ready to give up my life before this. I'm not going to let fear of death get in the way of me making my choice now." [1]

Rakushun swallowed noisily. [2]

EW: "I'm not being self-destructive." She smiled. "When I came here, considering the state I was in, dying wouldn't have come as much of a surprise. I've somehow survived till now, but probably more due to luck than anything else. I was as good as dead when I came here, so it's not something I get all choked up about. [1] At any rate, I don't want to be the kind of person who gets all choked up about stuff like that."

9.1. TokyoPop is a tad more literal, though the meanings are close enough.
9.2. Rakushun says, "But."

10. TP: Rakushun lifted his beady [1] eyes and looked into Yoko's. "I can't figure why this is such a tough decision for you." [2]
      "It's tough, because I can't do what they're asking of me."

EW: Rakushun looked up at her with his jet-black eyes. "We didn't know that you were so confused by all of this."
      "I can't do it."

10.1. "Beady" is entirely the wrong adjective.
10.2. Better: "I can't understand what you're so confused about."

11. TP: The rat began to walk away, his back still turned to Yoko, his hands raised as if to say he had done all he could and would do no more. Yoko watched him leave.

EW: Youko watched as he walked off into the distance. He waved his hand, but didn't turn around.

Should be: "raised his hand." The addition is not in the original.

12. I know, said a voice in Yoko's head that was not her own.
      Yoko's eyes opened wide, and she looked around hastily, but of course there was no one there. [1]

EW: But I know.
      This wasn't the sound of her own voice echoing inside her skull. Her head shot up and she scanned the surroundings. But it wasn't a sound she had heard with her ears. [2]

12.1. The addition is not in the original.
12.2. My translation is literal.

13. You called me a monster, whined to have me taken from you. My silence was your punishment.

EW: You thought me a monster, begged for me to be taken out of you. That is why. This was an error on your part.

Better: "begged and whined." The rest of my translation is pretty literal.

14. The only reply was the whistling of the night wind and the low crash of the waves far below.

EW: This statement went unanswered.

The addition is not in the original.

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April 24, 2008

Home literature

When I say that The Path of Dreams belongs in part to the "home literature" genre, I'm referring to Orson F. Whitney's original defense (made back in 1888) of fiction written specifically for the spiritual and moral edification of the religious community.

I see "home literature" as a direct extension of the stories I once wrote for The New Era. Or to be more precise, the kind of stories I would write if I didn't have to deal with Correlation, but without altering the overall approach or underlying intent.

In other words, taking Chris Bigelow's definition of "provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity" (which I am totally on board with), here I would exclude from those first two adjective anything violating theological or moral standards.

Now, Whitney more specifically challenged writers to

Make books yourselves that shall not only be a credit to you and to the land and people that produced you, but likewise a boon and benefaction to mankind.

The second clause in that sentence sets the bar far higher than the humble target I'm shooting at here. Namely, to remain faithful to the objectives of "home literature"--fiction that remains entirely within the community of believers--yet at the same time wedges into the niche occupied by the modern, secular, genre romance.

The two would obviously seem incompatible from the start. As explained by the Harlequin writer's guidelines:

We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed.

Hard to accomplish--and keep the protagonists temple recommend worthy--when marriage is the goal the plot leads up to. In The Path of Dreams, I came up with a clever (I think) end-run around this problem, though not one that could be deployed formulaically.

Moreover, by inserting a pivot point into the story--the marriage halfway through--those moral constraints (against romanticizing premarital sex) could be set aside for the remainder of the story.

A second reason is that, taking Austen as the classic romance template, by the time the engagement arrived with the certainty of marriage in the historical romance, the social structure of the lovers' lives thenceforth was determined. This is definitely not the case in a BYU romance (to take one sub-sub-genre).

Erica Friedman points out the problem of "stories end[ing] where they should begin." That is, they end with declarations of love and the decision to marry (or the marriage itself), when "what comes next" is really more interesting.

With the plot centered around the marital pivot point, the narrative will veer from strict romance to what I might call "family formation melodrama." The challenge, then, is to keep a firm grasp of the erotic thread and not turn into a dreary soap or one of those painfully unfunny sit-coms about what is in actuality an intolerably dysfunctional marriage.

Of course, we citizens of Utah County know that Mormons happily read (gentile) romance novels and attend R-rated movies at pretty much the same rates as the rest of suburban America. Whether such a genre with a "Mormon" label on the cover could survive that cognitive disconnect is another question.

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April 23, 2008

The Path of Dreams

The Path of Dreams is a romantic fantasy arising out of the traditional Japanese practice of the arranged marriage. The matchmakers in this case are an Osaka samurai academic and a Scottish Mormon polygamist. The union these two 19th century raconteurs plot for their great-great grandchildren is one their descendants never could have anticipated, for this o-miai exists only on "the path of dreams."

Although they have never met before, a seemingly chance encounter leaves Elaine Chieko Packard and Connor McKenzie haunted by passionate dreams they cannot control. They determine to resolve the growing tension between the moral strictures of their religion and their own overpowering emotions by eloping, a decision that triggers an entirely unexpected series of events.

In the days and months that follow, they find themselves reliving—in dreams and reality—many of the same conflicts their parents and grandparents once did. They come to realize that their lives cannot move forward until they have attended to the unsettled obligations of the past. As the prophet Malachi commanded, they must "turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers."

Apple Books
Google Play

The Path of Dreams was first published by Parables in 2006, the revised second edition by Peaks Island Press in 2008. An early draft won Honorable Mention in the 2002 Utah Original Writing Competition.

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April 22, 2008

Translation notes (12 Kingdoms)

Posting a chapter a week averages out to translating a page or two a day. Then on Saturday I paste the text from JWPce into Word and run a macro to turn the plain text into Word format, which I edit (often rather hastily), and then run another macro to turn it into HTML.

The translation process boils down to reading and typing (and pausing to look up words). When that doesn't work--such as with the infinitely long relative clauses that are grammatical in Japanese but impossible to translate literally into English--I have to think about how to make the "meaning" make sense in English.

Then there are times when I stop and say, "Huh?" And things slow to a crawl. This is when "translation" turns into "decoding."

When the "Huh?" moment arrive (once or twice a chapter), my main tools are JWPce (WWWJDIC), Ejirou, Google, and Yahoo-Japan's suite of dictionaries. I fall back on Yoshie Omura's Twelve Kingdoms glossary a lot. And in a pinch turn to a native speaker for help.

I depend a lot on input from readers pointing to typos, inconsistencies, lapses in logic. I've created a glossary of my own (the entries show up in the notes) to try and keep my terminology straight (though in some cases, such as Naiden and Gaiden, I haven't been as consistent as I should be).

A trilingual linguist friend once told me that a translator's first language skills are his most important. It doesn't matter how well you understand your second language if it comes out as gibberish in your first. My saving grace, I guess, because I'm considerably less fluent in Japanese than I am in English.

Of course, the English may scan correctly but be quite wrong. Shadow of the Moon was my first effort at something long and complex. Looking back at it now, I can usually spot my mistakes, though there are still a few head-scratchers. What makes the most sense is most often the most correct.

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April 21, 2008

Japanese onomatopoeia

Ann Althouse falls in love with Japanese onomatopoeia. As I explain here, the cleverness doesn't stop there.

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April 20, 2008

Chapter 48 (The Shore in Twilight)

司右 [しゆう] Shiyuu (administrator + right); the division in the Ministry of directly responsible for the armed forces, sort of like the Joint Chiefs of Staff serving under the Secretary of Defense.
射人 [しゃじん] Shajin (shoot arrow person); in American terms, the director of the Secret Service. The Daiboku serves under the Shajin.
虎賁氏 [こふんし] Kofun-shi (tiger + decorate); the royal bodyguard assigned to public functions.

外殿 [がいでん] Gaiden, lit. "outer palace"
内殿 [ないでん] Naiden, lit. "inner palace"

Somewhat problematic with these two translations is that the author also uses "outer palace" (外宮) to mean: "outside the Naiden and Gaiden." If the White House--specifically the Oval Office--is the Naiden, and the Capitol is the Gaiden, then the "inner palace" (外宮) would be the White House residence, Camp David, and the president's personal residences. The rest of the National Mall would be the "outer palace." Unfortunately, I haven't been terribly careful about making these distinctions explicit throughout.

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April 16, 2008

Empresses and kings

I've previously referred to this topic in addenda, but I thought I'd explain my word choices in translating "empress" and "king" a bit further. Fuyumi Ono generally uses the word ou (王) only. The "Royal Kei" is Kei-ou (景王). This is a gender-neutral term.

Adding the character for "woman" (女王) specifically makes it "queen" or "empress." When the En refers to Empress Yo, he uses "Jo-ou" (女王) several times. When he introduces Youko to Rokuta, he says "Empress of Kei" (景女王).

But when Rakushun first tells Youko, "You are the Royal Kei," he says "Kei-ou," as does most everybody else, including Youko.

I use "queen" to refer to the wife of a king (as in "Shoukei was the daughter of Queen Kaka, Chuutatsu's wife") and to Seioubo, "Queen Mother of the West," which translates literally as "west + king + mother" (西王母).

When speaking generically, I translate it as "king." When referring to Youko, I use "empress." To be more linguistically consistent, I should perhaps use "emperor" and "empress." But I prefer "king" to "emperor" and "empress" to "queen."

Throughout Japan's history, "emperor" has been a mostly titular role, with the political and military power residing in the hands of the shogun. "Empress" and "king" have more muscular, hands-on connotations to me.

Even in a Chinese context, the late dynasty emperors who spent their lives holed up in the Forbidden City seem pretty close to their Japanese counterparts. The early dynasty emperors like Ying Zheng remind me more of European kings in the Henry V mode.

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April 14, 2008

"Shadow of the Moon" revisions

Chapter 59 / 7-8

TP is the TokyoPop translation. EW is my translation.

1. TP: "Yes," replied Yoko. She wondered where his lecture would lead, but for now it seemed harmless enough to agree.

EW: "Yes."

The addition is not in the original.

2. TP: "Over There, you have presidents and prime ministers. Here, we appoint a king to rule.

EW: "This palace is where the king resides . . . .

The addition is not in the original. Enki is the one up on current affairs in Japan, and even the collective use of "we" is rather misleading.

3. TP: "I am not speaking to illustrate my own virtues--do not jump to conclusions.

EW: "That is beside the point.

Better: "I wouldn't go that far. Let's not get ahead of ourselves."

4. TP: "One way might be this 'social democracy' you've talked about," [1] Enki put in, much to Yoko's surprise. [2] "The people choose their own king, and if they don't like him, they make him quit."
      "Indeed," said the Ever-King. Then, turning to Yoko he added, "My minister has a great interest in the affairs of Over There, you see. [3] However, we have a different way of doing things Here.

EW: There's always democracy," Enki interjected. "The people choose a king to their own liking. And when he becomes not to their liking, they choose somebody else."
      "Well, that's one way," the En responded. "But here it is done another

4.1. The term translates directly as "democracy." The author uses kana instead of kanji, additionally suggesting that the world is a foreign import. LIT: "There's this thing called 'democracy.'"
4.2. The addition is not in the original.
4.3. The addition is not in the original.

5. TP: . . . Elegant, yes?"
      "I suppose," said Yoko, uncertainly. [1]
      The Ever-King nodded, seeming unperturbed by Yoko's lack of enthusiasm. [2]

EW: . . . Do you think that would work?"
      "Yeah, I suppose that would work."
      As if in agreement, the En nodded once.

5.1. There are ellipses in the original: "That . . . I suppose so." So the adverb "uncertainly" could be read in this context.
5.2. This is fairly vague expression: "En nodded, if only for the sake of nodding."

6. TP: Yoko nodded, her mind racing.

EW: Youko's head slumped.

The verb here is typically translated "to cast eyes downward," or "to hang one's head." If I were to add anything, it would probably be something like:

      Youko's head slumped. Oh, crap.

7. TP: If I did all as Enki suggested, the kingdom would surely falter."
      "Really?" asked Yoko, frowning.

EW: If I adhered to every word Enki spoke, the kingdom would fall to pieces."
      "Yeah . . . I suppose."

My translation is pretty literal.

8. TP: "So, once he chooses you, you're free to do as you will--and he is not?"

EW: "So, you're saying that after you're chosen by the kirin, you can pretty much do what you want?"

The addition is not in the original.

9. TP: Keiki protected her [1] as she grew more extreme. When she began killing those women who remained in the kingdom, Keiki fell ill."
      "What happened then?" asked Yoko, barely breathing. [2]

EW: And when Keiki protected them, she tried to have those who remained killed. At that point, Keiki fell ill."
      "And . . . ?"

9.1. TokyoPop is correct: "With Keiki covering for her, she only grew more extreme, and tried to have those who remained killed."
9.2. The addition is not in the original.

10. TP: "What happened to her then? To the Prophet, I mean."
      "To become king is to die and be reborn as a god. When one has ceased to be king, that one may no longer live."
      So, the former king of Kei died--she killed herself--to save Keiki.

EW: "What happened to her?"
      "That royal part of her died, and what made her a god was reversed. No longer a monarch, she could no longer continue to live."
      And so the Empress Jokaku of the Kingdom of Kei had passed away.

TokyoPop is correct: ""Becoming a king or empress means dying as a human and being reborn as a god. When you are no longer a monarch, you cannot continue to live."

11. TP: . . . There is only one way to bring them succor." [1]
      "The true king must sit upon the throne?" [2]
      "Precisely." [3]
      Yoko shook her head. "I can't do this."
      "I think you can. I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a king."
      "I don't believe you."

EW: There is no way of saving them." [1]
      "So why didn't he go and choose the right king as soon as possible?" [2]
      "That is what he has done." [3]
      Youko shook her head. "There's just no way."
      "Why is that? I believe that you possess all the necessary kingly attributes."
      "You're kidding."

11.1. Should be: "There is no other way of saving them."
11.2. Should be : "You mean, placing a righteous king on the throne as soon as possible?"
11.3. TokyoPop is correct.
11.4. LIT: "You are equipped with a kingly spirit." Both versions work.

12. TP: . . . I ask you to save your kingdom. Please."

EW: . . . I am pleading with you to help save my kingdom, and yours."

I wasn't sure about the antecedent to the pronoun here, which is why I fudged and threw in "and yours." Upon further examination, it should be "your kingdom."

13. TP: Indeed, a short time ago I received a strongly worded request from the Naze-King to deliver to him any kaikyaku who may have come from his land into mine.

EW: In fact, I have received from Kou a strongly-worded petition seeking the extradition of a kaikyaku who fled to En.

LIT: "I received a strongly-worded request from the Royal Kou to hand over kaikyaku fleeing from Kou to En." I prefer "extradition," though.

14. TP: The Ever-King turned his gaze to Yoko. His point was clear.

EW: There was much more in the expression on his face that was left unsaid.

Better: "His gaze fell on her. There was much more in his eyes that was left unsaid."

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April 13, 2008

Chapter 47 (The Shore in Twilight)

内宰 [ないさい] Naisai (inner manager), vice-minister of the Interior
冗祐 [じょうゆう] Jouyuu, the warrior spirit that "possesses" Youko and helps her fight; he first appears in chapter 6 of Shadow of the Moon.

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April 11, 2008

Defending the personal pronoun

My sister, who teaches college writing, argues for the first-person essay:

If the problem is the lack of expert/credible sources in students' writing, not using first person doesn't solve the problem; it just covers it up . . . . I'd much rather read a student's personal/eyewitness account of 9/11 than a thousand third-person conspiracy theories.

This is one of Seth Roberts' hobbyhorses, that personal data is much better than no data at all, and while not every correlation points to a cause ("I did X, then Y happened"), it probably points to something. A placebo effect is still an effect. He recently pointed to this article about self-experimentation in defense of first-person emperical evidence.

This is somewhat beside the point, but I'm pretty sure the part in the article about the doctor injecting himself with his patient's blood was the basis for a House episode ("You Don't Want to Know").

The problem of presenting evidence and making testable claims aside, the first person does help to discipline POV, a reason I recall mystery writer Dick Francis citing. I do prefer the third person, but must admit to getting notes back from my editor saying, "POV violation!"

Disbelievers in the power of the personal pronoun can always wander over to the "This I Believe" website.

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April 08, 2008


March went out like a lion here in Utah, with several more inches of snow in the valleys and several more feet in the mountains. But this is nothing compared to Japan's Tohoku region--where accumulations are counted in double digits--despite the superficial similarities in alpine geography.

Especially noteworthy are  "juhyou" (樹氷), or "frost-covered trees" (tree + ice). They are a product of Japan's "snow country," where cold Siberian winds meet warm Pacific currents, creating record snowfalls at fairly low latitudes (similar to the Appalachians of the mid-Atlantic region). The result is a natural flocking machine.

See a gorgeous photo essay on the subject here.

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April 07, 2008

Chapter 46 (The Shore in Twilight)

April 06, 2008

Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea

Of the common fantasy motifs, perhaps the most resonant is that of the protagonist who, discontent with the banality of the "real" world, stumbles across, or is pulled through, a doorway to another world. Through perseverance, bravery, sacrifice, and direct action (Joseph Campbell's twelve-step program for heroes), she achieves the knowledge and self-confidence necessary to save herself and/or her adopted kingdom.

Shadow of the Moon being a case in point. Consider as well: The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Shoji Kawamori and Kazuki Akane's Escaflowne is a fascinating addition to the genre.

Here, Hitomi, an angst-ridden Japanese high school senior, is transported to the world of Gaea, in a parallel universe from which you can see the Earth and the "dark side" of the Moon (adorned with a giant stone eye). She is the "Wing Goddess," disgorged as if born from the heart of the War Dragon Escaflowne, yet with no knowledge of how to call or control it.

From the onset, Hitomi’s is an almost existential presence. Her helplessness in organizing her own fate is of no small moment, for the control of Escaflowne will determine the victor in the apocalyptic war between Van and Folken, two brothers locked in an interminable internecine conflict that echoes Jacob and Esau. Van’s first impulse is to kill her for refusing to yield control Escaflowne to him, while Folken attempts to kidnap her to gain the same power, a power she does not believe she possesses.

Hitomi’s role in the conflict finally becomes apparent as the showdown between Van and Folken reaches its inevitable fury. Her role is, in fact, simply to be. She becomes a talisman who, according to her own desires, will catalyze either the apotheosis of Van’s abnegation or Folken’s annihilation. She must choose between the rightful but dispossessed king, and the severe elder brother: the overman.

In Jungian terms, she is their anima, and they her animus. The heroic journey is one of the self through the long, dark night of the soul. Hitomi’s once frivolous toying with thoughts of suicide suddenly sharpens to a point in the substance of Folken’s Nietzschean offer of eternal peace and infinite atonement through total extinction, the promise to resolve all internal doubts in glorious self-destruction.

The alternative choice is that of forgiveness, of reconciliation. And so it is at that cathartic moment of abreaction when Van accepts himself, accepts Hitomi, accepts Folken as brother, that the war abruptly ends. And the moment in which Hitomi accepts Van, accepts Gaea in its totality, Gaea vanishes. She disappears from the reconciled world on silver wings, for she is the Wing Goddess.

To be sure, the movie is perhaps better judged in terms of its theme and intent than by the particulars of story and plot. The film is specifically titled Escalflowne: A Girl in Gaea, to distinguish it from the series. In the process of truncation, gaps show up in the galloping plot and characters that spring onto the stage with fully-developed vendettas and alliances that must be explained in a few lines of dialogue.

At any rate, the intricate complexity of the world, the wonderful matte art, is compelling enough on its own. The screen spills over with that medieval post-modernism that Japanese anime art directors love so: soldiers in 16th century samurai garb flying around in massive dirigibles, firing cannon out portholes like tall ships (a trope later used in The Last Exile). That is, when they're not whacking each other's heads off with swords.

As mentioned, the movie is a redacted retelling of the television series. A good deal of Hitomi’s backstory has been left out, along with the romantic sub-plots. Director Kazuki Akane's explanation is that the fan base for the series was overwhelmingly female, and he wanted to broaden the base for the movie version. Well, maybe.

He also engineered a complete character redesign for the movie. Character design is one of those specializations that emerges when an industry reaches a critical mass in relationship to everything else in the field (like the position of "story runner" in Hollywood television production). The only example of obvious character redesign in an American production I can think of is between the first and later seasons of The Simpsons.

The "look" of animation in Hollywood is typically considered the product of the studio, unless the source is directly attributable (i.e., Peanuts cartoons look like the Peanuts strip). In Japanese animation, though, there are specialists in character design as well as mechanical design (to handle the robots and all the things that go whrrrr). A particular artist's name in the credits will raise expectation about the "look and feel" of the final product.

These changes not unexpectedly outraged devoted fans of the series. But I found I quite liked these editorial decisions (and even more so after watching the series). Despite the redactions and adaptations, anybody familiar with fantasy should be able to fill in the blanks on their own. After all, the real fun in practicing literary analysis is being able to ignore what the author might have actually meant in the first place.

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April 01, 2008

The unbearable lightness of light novels

A recent blog conversation in a small corner of the publishing world I follow (and earn a nominal income from) is directly relevant to any niche, small or micro-publisher.

The discussion concern the "light novel," a popular novella format in Japan, basically an illustrated paperback of around 40,000 words. Several U.S. anime and manga publishers have been licensing light novels. Sales have not been encouraging.

In response, Erica Friedman (a small publisher in her own right) gets down to brass tacks, admonishing the licensors and licensees to "Rework your projections and admit that you’re all working in a teeny-tiny, grassroots industry."

Her essay encapsulates the aspirations of small publishers, and the pitfalls awaiting them. In the comments, she points to one fail-safe strategy: plumb the lowest common denominator. (Which is pretty much what yaoi does.)

One obviously approach is making first volumes available free, because "you can't expect people to buy stuff that they don’t know about!" Baen Books does precisely this. It offers many of its titles--especially first titles in a series--for free online.

Baen Books is now making available--for free--a number of its titles in electronic format. We're calling it the Baen Free Library. Anyone who wishes can read these titles online--no conditions, no strings attached.

As Eric Flint explains:

[P]erhaps most important of all, free books are the way an audience is built in the first place . . . . Most readers of science fiction and fantasy develop that interest as teenagers, mainly from libraries [and] . . . people lending books to their friends.

Niche and micro-publishers serious about expanding their markets should memorize this essay. Though perhaps Tim O'Reilly sums up the problem the best: "Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy."

The Baen approach is a kind of serialization. Manga, after all, is a thriving expression of the serial novel, very much in a form Dickens would have been familiar with. English translations of Japanese light novels could benefit from a similar marketing strategy.

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