Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

In Defense of Exoticism

by Daniel Abraham

I should be writing something besides a blog post.  Seriously.  Caliban’s War, the second book of The Expanse, and The King’s Blood, follow-up to The Dragon’s Path are both due June 1st, and I’m paying a little now for kicking back last year.  Oh, they’ll be done, but a blog post?

But some recent conversations about escapism and racism and fantasy have got me going.  I’ve been thinking about exoticism.  And about guilty pleasures.  I’m still thinking through all this, so it’s going to be a little rough around the edges.  It’s all part of the conversation after all.  When I have it all figured out, I’ll stop talking about it, probably.

The power to cloud men's minds, especially when they really want to get clouded

So here’s what’s on my mind.  Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word.  It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar.  The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.”  But there are a thousand other examples.  Charlie Chan.  The cliche of the magical negro.  Even overly racist propaganda like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have at their heart the impulse — the attraction — of a world outside the familiar.  And by familiar, I mean familiar to the audience for whom the works are intended.  There are billions of folks who travel in East Asia every day without learning the power to cloud men’s minds.  They’re Chinese.  And while Jews will find the Protocols unfamiliar, they don’t find ’em exotic.

I want to say up front that I recognize the problem of exoticism in practice.  It is dehumanizing for the people whose culture is being appropriated, reinterpreted, *mis*interpreted, and used.  It is exclusive by nature.

But here’s the thing, I don’t think the attraction of it is in its exclusivity.   When I listen to the old Shadow radio programs, I have that moment of guilt, but I also have the little frission that the writers at the time meant me to have.  Lamont Cranston is romantic and mysterious.  He knows secrets that we do not, because he’s been outside of the world we know and he has returned changed.  I don’t take pleasure from the thought that I have taken the actual cultures of billions of people and changed them into an Alec Baldwin movie.  I take pleasure in the intimation that somewhere, somehow, there’s a way out.

Yes, yes, this isn’t about the real Far East.  I know lots of folks who traveled to the real Far East, and I’m pretty certain Maureen McHugh doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds, or if she does, she uses it sparingly.  But it’s as true of Tomb Raider’s Kuala Lumpur or — to be really self-aware about it — John Crowley’s Aegypt.  Exoticism is an attempt to take a psychological — maybe even a spiritual — state of mind and place it in the real world.  It’s doomed to fail because most of the real world is already filled up with folks who don’t find their struggles to find clean water and food particularly exotic or ennobling.  But I have the feeling that, as with most pleasures (and especially pleasures that are hard to give up), there’s something important in it that we shouldn’t turn away from.

The other thing this chimes off in the back of my head is attitudes of men toward women.  Specifically the paired strategies of denigrating women or putting them on a pedestal.  Again, either choice is the imposition of a different story over a real human being or class of human beings.  Again, that’s what makes it toxic.  But it’s not what makes it an attractive strategy.

There’s something in at least my psychology that is deeply attracted to the idea of an Other.  Of something different than my familiar world.  An outside.

There’s a danger in looking for that in the literal world — within history.  And it’s something that screws us up whether we’re trying to put God into history or Lamont Cranston into Thailand.  But that doesn’t take away from the hunger behind it.  For escapism, for exoticism, for the idealized other.  I don’t think that desire is in itself pathological, and I don’t want to see it thrown out with the bathwater.

Does that make sense?


Another Step Down the Dragon’s Path with extra added Hurt Me

by Daniel Abraham


Which is to say another excerpt is up at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.  I also got email from your friends and mine at Orbit.  They’ve got the actual book back from the printers.  While the ARCs for it are lovely, I’m looking forward to having the actual book in my hands. There are other excerpts up here and here.

And, in unrelated news, congratulations are due to my alter ego, MLN Hanover.  Her first short story — Hurt Me — has been picked for inclusion in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011.  It’s a blast to see my pseudonym up there with folks like Peter Watts and Joe Lansdale.  I expect the anthology will be a thoroughly disturbing read, and all the better for that.  And if you just can’t wait to read it, Hurt Me is still up as a podcastle episode with its own discussion thread.

I have to say, the response to that particular story has been fascinating.  I can’t talk about too many details without including massive spoilers, but the story I wrote appears to be the story about half the people who pick it up read.  I wouldn’t have thought this one was a Rorschach test, but I guess everything is.


“Clint Eastwood goes to Narnia”

by Daniel Abraham

Your friends and mine at Kirkus have reviewed The Dragon’s Path.

I am wildly amused.

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SF Signal’s latest Mind Meld

by Daniel Abraham


The folks at SF Signal asked a bunch of folks (myself included) what forthcoming F&SF books had our ears pricked up.  Patricia Briggs, William Schafer, Scott Cupp, Mike Resnick, Cat Rambo, Jean Rabe, David Louis Edelman, Mur Lafferty, Ann VanderMeer, Lisa Goldstein, Mindy Klasky, Summer Brooks, and I compare wishlists here.


Like an old Ace double, except not old or Ace

by Daniel Abraham

Your friends and mine at Orbit have just announced something I’ve been keeping under my hat for a while now.  But yes, Now It Can Be Told.

The upshot is that is you buy the ebook of Dragon’s Path, you’ll also get Leviathan Wakes.  And if you buy the electronic version of Leviathan Wakes, it comes with a complimentary Dragon’s Path.

So if you were wondering which one to get . . .


Racism revisited (sci fi style)

by Ty Franck

I’ve been thinking about Daniel’s post on racism in fantasy settings.

Firstly, fantasy, especially high fantasy, has a great big giant get-out-of-jail free card when it comes to dealing with racism in any sort of realistic way.  When you make the races up, you get to define who they are and what is true about them.  And since fantastic fiction tends to be the fiction of extremes, what is true about your races will tend to be extreme.  Tolkien just got to say, ‘Elves are the most wise, the most beautiful, the most artistic people in the land.  Orcs are evil, through and through.’  No one questions these definitions.  There is no orcish anti-defamation league filing lawsuits over this libelous treatment of their kind.  Orcs are evil because they are orcs, and orcs are evil.  End of circular story.  You can have vicious racism in such a setting because the racists are right! The author has told you that orcs are irredeemably evil, so when our heroes murder the shit out of them, we can be satisfied that justice was done.

Sci fi, especially sci fi dealing with humans. . . not so much.   We live in a world where some people treat other people like orcs.  They hate them without reservation, sometimes to the point of murdering them just for being a member of their particular group.  But in the real world, we actually meet those people.  We work with them and live on the same block with them and hang out at parties with them.   So we know that no group, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation, is a faceless mass of evil requiring extermination.  In fact, exactly the opposite.  The more you get to know people outside your particular ethnic/religious/etc group, the more you generally realize they are (other than those surface differences) pretty much the same as you.  It’s pretty hard to maintain an unreasoning hatred when confronted with daily reminders of your enemy’s humanity.

But people are complicated.  In spite of those difficulties, people find ways to hate.  And the easiest way is to pick a group you are generally not required to interact with.  Hate gay people?  You probably don’t hang out with any then.  Hate another race?  You probably avoid interacting with them as much as possible.  In group/out group dynamics are as old as tribalism in the human species.  A couple million years of physical and social evolution aren’t wiped away overnight.

So when you write about the future, how do you handle this?  The easiest way I guess is the ST:TNG method of just pretending all racism went away (except, you know, Klingons and Romulans and generic evil species of the week).  But honestly, that just rings false to me.  We’ve been struggling with racism and tribalism for hundreds of years now, and while we’ve made some definite progress, we’re nowhere near the finish line.  I can’t imagine the world is magically bigotry free just because another hundred years goes by.

Daniel and I had these discussions when creating The Expanse, and specifically when writing Leviathan Wakes.  Our choice was to shift bigotry away from racial markers and over to birthplace markers.  People born on Earth look different from people born on Mars, or born in the Outer Planets.  Those places also have significant cultural differences.  It seemed a pretty easy leap to assume that those things would become the new basis for bigotry and hatred.  It’s tricky though.  Sure, we are making up Belters and outer planets citizens and Martians.  But they are all still human.  We can address bigotry and tribalism in our fictional context, while to some degree avoiding the pitfalls that come with talking about actual groups that really exist.  At the same time though, we are dealing with humans.  Humans do exist.  Most people aren’t going to buy into the idea that a couple hundred years of cultural differences will turn humans into orcs.

And that’s the big difference, to me.  Fantasy gets to make all of the rules for its races.  If fantasy deals with racism, it does so only when it wants to, and on its own terms.  But sci fi, and especially anthropocentric sci fi, brings all the weight of human history along with it, including our long history of bigotry and hatred.  You ignore that at your peril.


Toward a taxonomy of the thirteen races (A Dagger and Coin Joint)

by Daniel Abraham

Fantasy races, but not like this.

With the advanced readers copies of The Dragon’s Path coming out, folks have pointed out that it might be nice to have a primer for the different races.  Who am I to disagree, right?  So here you go.

Racism in fantasy’s an interesting thing, because having an entirely created world, it becomes possible — in fact necessary — to exoticise the other without excluding any real human beings or cultures from the wide and inclusive sense of “us.” 

When I was first building the world of The Dagger and the Coin, I was initially resistant to the idea of having a bunch of different folks — goblins and trolls and elves and dwarfs and on and on and on — but Ty (who is increasingly becoming the unseen force in the steering of all modern fantasy literature) argued that part of what makes fantasy fantasy is that sense of walking into the Goblin Market, of being surrounded by the exotic and strange.  And, whether we’re comfortable with it or not (I’m on the “not” side), that means evoking that feeling of being in a different place and surrounded by people that aren’t like you, and — in this case literally — are only kind of human.

High fantasy has the capacity — just the capacity, it’s by no means easy or automatic — to sit with racism defanged.  When the races are separated by the intentional design of the race of fallen dragons and not accidents of where a particular person’s ancestors spent the Pleistocene, it turns into something like a needle with no poison.

I don’t know that what I’m doing with The Dagger and the Coin is particularly taking on the toxic aspects of racism, but the more I look at it, the more suspect that some of the issues are necessary. To say Jasuru are warlike and Cinnae are cunning is, I suspect, the same impulse as saying Jews are cheap and Blacks are violent, but without anyone to confront it.  If I say that the Haaverkin are one particular way, no one has the authority to disagree.

I feel like I’m juggling with dulled knives here, but they’re still knives.

I’m going to have to think about this some more…


Blake Nails It

by Daniel Abraham

Blake Charlton has written what is to my mind the best analysis ever of an author struggling with strong women characters.

In summary, yeah, like that.


Hurt Me by MLN Hanover

by Daniel Abraham

Podcastle has just put up probably the best short story I’ve written.  Other people may like other stuff I’ve done better, and that’s cool.  But personally — privately — this one just makes me smug.

There’s a story about this story.  It’s not actually mine.

"Hurt Me"'s first home.

What happened was Ty had this idea for a story, and we used it as the example when we had this conversation about plot structure.  We talked about how the scenes could build one on the other, and how you try to finesse information control, and how “plot” is a weird sort of cluster of different things depending on context, and that should have been it.  Ty wrote a draft of it that wasn’t quite what I would have done, but it was good, solid work.

The problem was I wanted it.  I wanted it bad, and I wanted it the way I would have done it.  There is no bigger faux pas than stealing your writing partner’s story.  There just isn’t.  Okay, there is, but it involves spouses and hotel rooms, and what I wanted was that story.

And, being a mature fella at the height of my powers, I did what anyone would.  I whined to his wife.  I really didn’t mean for it to get back to him.  I was just venting, but she mentioned it to him, and he — because he hadn’t had any other big plans for the thing — said I could have a go at it if I wanted to.

No one in the history of literature was ever happier than I was.  I had permission.  And I got to do it exactly the way I wanted, the way the story wrote itself in my head in the weeks and months after Ty and I talked about it.

Parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but of all the stories I’ve written, this one is my favorite.  If I ever sell the movie rights to it, Ty gets half the money.

In the meantime, the podcast is free.  Please do feel free to send this link around to everyone you know.  If there were one thing in my career I’d love to see go viral, this one’s it.


Killing Rites

by Daniel Abraham

There is that beautiful moment when the manuscript is finished and before you go to bed, when it is the best book ever written.  So deeply felt and emotionally honest that it shines above everything else you’ve done and everything you’re going to do.

You sleep, and by the time you wake up, it’ll be crap again.  But that one sweet moment when it’s great?  Oh, it’s a nice one.


So yeah.  That was fun.  Break’s over now.  Heading for bed, then doing the final polish pass before I send it and (hopefully) the pitch for the next two in the series out on Monday.