Savage Worlds: Askha

My Tuesday-night RPG group has changed ‘seasons’. Now we are playing Savage Worlds: The Last Parsec.

TLP Askha mini

Askha’s mini with my first set of polyhedral dice. The mini was made by Hero Forge.

Askha bel Sayid Zadasi
(Rakashan)

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Art by Bryan Syme for The Last Parsec. Askha has tortoiseshell coloring.

Askha grew up in Odezza, the capital city of Tazan on Rakhat, in the heart of what outsiders call the Tazanian Empire. The Great Empire counts non-habitable planets and planetoids among its holdings; many of these are mined for their resources even if they have not been completely terraformed to sustain rakashan life. Rakashans are often thought to exaggerate the size of their empire because the name of their empire (in Tazanian) translates literally into Common as ‘The Empire of a Thousand Worlds’, even if the actual tally (including planetoids) is closer to two hundred. This is because of a quirk in translation: the word meaning ‘great’ or ‘exceedingly numerous’ also translates as the word for the number ‘thousand’. Sometimes the name for the empire is translated as The Great Empire; however, as a rule, Tazanian rakashans are proud of their empire and prefer the hyperbolic translation.

Askha and her twin, Nikith, are middle children. (Nearly all rakashans are fraternal twins.) Her older sisters are fierce, disciplined, and rule-abiding, perfect daughters of their retired Marine mother. Following them, Askha and Nikith both were misfits: Nikith, an introvert in a large and social extended family, and Askha, resentful of her older sisters and protective of her brother. From an early age, Askha chafed at being told what to do, especially by her bossy sisters. Manasa and Akasis dominated the cubs in their family, but Askha habitually ignored them, only increasing the tension between them. Where her mother was pleased at Manasa and Akasis’ leadership skills, she also despaired at her youngest daughter’s lack of discipline.

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Art by Bryan Syme for The Last Parsec.

The only one of her siblings that Askha likes is her twin, Nikith. She frequently fought with the others on his behalf, fiercely protecting him when he wanted to be alone and read or keep accounts of their toys or books. When it came time for their military service, however, they were separated and served in different units. Askha trained hard and took naturally to weapons and combat. Like most rakashans, Askha’s blood sings in the heat of battle: once she has drawn blood, she desires nothing else than to bring down her foes, and nothing is as satisfying as feeling her enemy’s flesh give way beneath her claws. (Thus is the brutality that made their empire and puts down any rebellion.) Even so, the strict discipline of the military was too much like being ordered around by her sisters. When her military service was completed, Askha returned to Rakhat.

Both of Askha’s older sisters were already career officers in the Marines, following in their mother’s footsteps, and Askha had no desire to imitate them and continue to compete for their mother’s favor. Instead, she tried various stints as a bodyguard or security officer, but neither saw much action in the heart of the Great Empire. Eventually, her father suggested that Askha leave both Rakhat and the empire for a more satisfying career. It pained him to send one of his children so far away, away from both clan and empire, but he also hated to see her so dissatisfied with her life in Tazan.

The next year, Askha bought passage on a ship that took her to the edge of Tazanian territory, and from there she worked her way across several systems as a mercenary of sorts. Askha accepted a position in JumpCorps’ Security division at a time when she needed a more steady income. After more than a year on Harmonia Station, though, she was beginning to get bored with the work, all of it routine. Then she received a message from the station’s Administrator with a new assignment…

*

It’s taken a while for me to get a feel for Askha. I purposefully built her to be unlike any of my other characters: Tess is the mad scientist and gentlewoman adventurer and Maya is the privileged and charismatic privateer, but Askha is the bloodthirsty mercenary. She’s a fighter, not a diplomat; noncompliant, rather than rules-abiding. Case in point: During last night’s session, our team ran into a group of thugs in a darkened corridor on a mining station — there were 11 of them and 5 of us. One of our team set off a smoke grenade and in the confusion of the darkness and smoke, Askha slipped forward and efficiently clawed out the throats of four of the thugs. She had to be pulled back from chasing the remaining four that fled. In addition to being an effective killing machine, Askha is also somewhat arrogant, firm in her belief that the Great Empire is the paragon of civilization; a bit aloof, but also loyal to her crew. She does care about them even if it’s sometimes difficult for them to tell that she does.

Askha, obviously, is very different from my own personality; to help me play her, I’ve decided to channel Zoe from Firefly and Carol from The Walking Dead (the TV version). Because she is so different from what I usually play and because the setting is new without much of an established canon, I’ve often felt adrift when playing her. As one player put it, we all have creative imaginations but also don’t want to impinge on anyone else’s world-building. In order to create a shared universe, though, we each need to speak up, step on each other’s toes, and negotiate when ideas clash. So, before returning to The Last Parsec, our GM asked us to do some more backstory- and world-building and we went over these developments as the introduction to our third season. This post is the product of my own world-building and definitely helped me to play her better last night.

Regarding her mini: Sci-fi big cat minis don’t exist, and the existing fantasy big cat minis are ridiculously ill-suited for a sci-fi setting. Luckily, the GM who makes our minis was able to order a mini for Askha from Hero Forge, a company that uses 3D-printing to print out any mini that you design on their website. Of course, the coloring I chose for Askha (tortoiseshell, with forest green and grey clothing) makes her very difficult to take pictures of, but rest assured, she’s pretty awesome.

preservation vs. function

This week I have had the opportunity to view several of the pieces in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University, and to hear the collectors speak of their journey and about decorated papers. It’s been fascinating.

decorated paper 1

Yes, this is a two-dimensional piece of paper.

What are decorated papers? In the very basic sense, it is paper that has been decorated in some way, and in the case of the Berger-Cloonan Collection, papers that have been decorated by hand. Berger and Cloonan have travelled the world to find papers to add to the collection, often directly from the artists themselves. The Blue Batik Zig Zags paper I used to cover my gaming binder is an example of commercial decorated paper.

decorated paper 3One thing Sid Berger said during the talk has been turning in my mind: he wants complete sheets of paper and abhors the thought of cutting any of the papers into smaller pieces.

But what are decorated papers for? In book production, these types of papers are often used for the nice end papers inside the cover of hardcopy books and special editions. To be used for this purpose, the papers must be cut to size.

As an archivist-in-training, with a touch of a hoarding impulse, I recognize the desire to keep beautiful pieces intact. But also as an archivist-in-training and historian, with a dose of pragmatism, I see the importance of letting these papers fulfill their functions: to be used, to be appreciated in the way they bring beauty to an object that brings together a variety of specialized trades. A book that has decorated paper inside, or even outside, the cover lets us know that not only was this book considered special enough to warrant beautiful paper in its binding, but also that such artisanship was valued by its makers and audience. And that is just the beginning of the insights we could learn from such an object.

decorated paper 4

An example of a piece that has been ‘marbled’ twice using a mask.

In some ways it comes down to the intention or purpose behind the object. Some of these pieces truly are works of art. Some of the artists made these papers specifically to be included in the Berger-Cloonan collection. Some of these pieces were not made to be used as end papers in books, but are intended to be kept whole. These pieces can be framed and appreciated as the works of art they clearly are.

Therein lies the distinction. The truly singular pieces, made with the intent to be viewed as a whole, intact piece, should be kept so; but the inclusion of an entire ream (hundreds of pages) of a similar, repetitive design that was made commercially perhaps would serve its purpose better by being used. Of course, I was not privy to the appraisal process and may be unaware of the reasons why reams of material were included in the collection. Nor am I an art historian nor a decorated paper aficionado. I am, however, someone who appreciates craftsmanship and the practical and the mundane made beautiful.

We have the tendency to hide away our beautiful and finely crafted things, wrapped carefully and kept safe, hidden from view. How often do we actually use that special china, or knit something from that beautiful and hand-dyed yarn, or drink that unique tea? But how well can we enjoy those things if we do not see them or use them? Yes, using them poses some risk — we might break the china, the project for the yarn might not work out, the tea will be consumed — but this risk is part of living life. Let us use the beautiful things meant to be used and enjoyed in their use.

What do you think? How do you decide what is ‘too special’ to use and what isn’t?


All images in this post are of papers included in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers in the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University. This post will be updated with the names of the individual artists once I have that information.

DIY clipboard binder

After nearly a year of use, my (second) gaming folder was looking like this:

This paper folder was fine when I had only a few character sheets to keep, but not when I had several, plus notebooks and other ephemera. It was time to upgrade. One of my fellow gamers uses an Officemate Slim Clipboard Storage Box, but after looking at it, I found that the clip was too stiff to open easily with my arthritic hands. I decided that I wanted a binder so that I could keep my system of keeping each character’s papers together in a plastic protector. I didn’t want just any binder though: I wanted one with a clipboard. I was always asking our hosts where the clipboards were and wanted one of my own, without having another item to keep up with or weigh down my game bag even further. Surely I could buy a binder with a clip on it, right?

Wrong. The few that I could find online were out of stock or had the clip on the inside of the front cover, rather than on the outside. Well, attaching a clip to the front of a binder shouldn’t be too hard, I thought, and decided to make one myself. Since I couldn’t find a binder that had the cover/design I wanted, I also decided to take a plain binder and re-cover it as well.

To put a new cover on the binder, I used this DIY tutorial from Thrift Diving. These were my supplies:

One of the issues pointed out on the Thrift Diving tutorial is that the paper isn’t sealed to be water proof. Having had one gaming folder damaged by water already, and knowing that we often have drinks on the table, I wanted to protect the paper from getting wet by accident. My solution was to line the paper with a self-seal laminating sheet before gluing it onto the binder. The type that I used allows one laminate a single side.

After I laminated the paper, re-covering the binder was pretty straightforward. The tutorial covers each step, so I just followed along. When it came to putting the clipboard clip on, however, things started to get a bit tricky.

I used a hammer and nail to make holes for the rivets that would attach the clip to the binder. It seemed like a simple job: make the holes, put the clip into place, and set the rivets. Only, the rivets wouldn’t set. I went out and bought a rivet setter, since part of the problem was not having the right tool on hand, but neither the rivets that came with the clips nor the ones that came with the setting tool would stay fastened.

gaming binder 8

In the end, I admit to using superglue. I used the setting tool and anvil to squash the two sides of the rivet together for the glue to adhere.

For a finishing touch, I used washing tape to make a border on the inside of the binder, covering the edges of the paper.

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The inside, featuring a washi-tape border. I splurged and bought new mechanical pencils.

gaming binder 10

It only looks full already because of the notebooks I keep for our campaigns.

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The binder in situ, with spell cards, notebook, and dice bag (which I also made).

I’m quite pleased with the final product! I have used it several times since making the binder and it is holding up well.

Now that I know what I’m doing, and have extra binder clips and rivets, I might make more clipboard binders as gifts in case any of my gamer friends decide they want one for themselves.

how do we treat the sick?

There’s been quite the flurry of noise on the Internet about the American Health Care Act that was passed in the House of Representatives today. Something that caught my attention is an interview with Mo Brooks (R, Rep. AL), in which he said:

‘People who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people — who’ve done things the right way — that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.’

Source: CNN Interview with Mo Brooks by Jake Tapper (around 3.20 of the clip)

His statements imply that people who lead healthy (‘good’) lifestyles don’t have pre-existing conditions, which also implies that people who do get sick or have pre-existing conditions somehow did something to deserve their poor health.

Brooks does immediately add, ‘Now, in fairness, many of the people who have pre-existing conditions have those conditions through no fault of their own.’

It’s the earlier statement that is getting the headlines and the attention, and for good reason. The problem here is in placing a moral value on a person’s lifestyle — whether they exercise regularly or diet or eat well — which is what the first statement does: people who lead ‘good lives’, who have done things ‘the right way.’ How, then, do you reconcile the second statement, that those with pre-existing conditions are not at fault for having them, with the first? You have already established the premise that ‘good people’ don’t have pre-existing conditions. So how can someone have a pre-existing condition and not have done something to deserve his or her condition?

This is not a new question. I am reminded of the disciples asking Jesus when they see a man blind from birth: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9.2) We might not express it as outright as that, but we still sometimes have that sentiment that if something bad happens to someone, then they probably deserved it: this idea of, ‘Well, they had it coming.’

But we need to remember Jesus’s answer: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ (John 9.3)

Granted, in the gospel, the work of God is Jesus restoring the man’s sight, which isn’t exactly something we can expect to happen today (it wasn’t common then, either). That doesn’t mean we can write off Jesus’s answer, though.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Often I see the focus of this passage placed in the following sentence or in the events after the miraculous healing, to the point that this sentence is overlooked. If this sentence is evoked, it’s usually done after some misfortune or tragedy, along with the platitude, ‘All things happen for a reason’ (with which I politely disagree, but that is another subject).

What are the works of God and how might they be displayed? What does that look like today? Right now, in the wake of the AHCA passing the House, this is what I hear from that passage:

The works of God are displayed in how we treat the sick, the poor, and the needy.

Our words, our thoughts, and our actions: what are they when we encounter someone who is ill? What are they when we encounter someone who is chronically ill or differently abled? Not just how we treat that person as an individual; but how do we treat them as a group when we shape our ideas about health care and when we vote? Are we treating the sick, the poor, and the needy in such a way that it displays the work of God?

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an elephant with balloons

One of my goals for this year is to finish projects that I had started but had to put aside for one reason or another (usually health related). This cross-stitch of an elephant holding a bunch of balloons is the first that I completed this year, with a little help from the recipient’s mother.

balloon cross stitch 2

Photo taken by Megan Berryman.

When my friend Megan announced that she was going to decorate her baby daughter’s room with the theme of balloons, I immediately thought of the idea of using buttons for balloons.

balloon cross stitch 1

Photo taken by Megan Berryman.

The buttons I sourced from a local ‘scraps’ craft store, which literally sells scraps of fabric, ends of paint, bits and bobs, and an assortment of random things. Inside it’s like wandering around an old attic, happening upon just that unusual item you can use for a crafting project. I wanted a variety of buttons and I got a paper bag full for 25 cents. The remaining supplies I got from Hobby Lobby. Another friend of mine helped refresh my memory for how to sew on a button and do a simple stitch to use for the strings and elephant. (I am not confident with needle and thread by any means, but such are the things I do for friends.)

I added the elephant for a touch of whimsy. I like for the gifts I give to children to encourage a creative imagination. Because the buttons already created a 3D element, I let the ends of the strings hang loose. Megan put on the finishing touches by filling in the elephant with fabric paint and using her sewing machine to hem the edges of the fabric.

Despite being more than a year ‘late’, I’m pleased that both Megan and little A. like the elephant holding balloons.

what causes academic dishonesty?

This week I have had to investigate and speak with several students about academic dishonesty issues in their most recent assignment.

The majority of the problems are lack of appropriate citations, ‘patchwriting’ (or incomplete paraphrasing), including direct quotations without indicating that they are quotations, and similar infractions. As a teacher/librarian, I am frustrated because I thought I covered how to cite and how to use sources earlier in the semester. How is it that nearly a third of the class made these mistakes?

It’s easy to think that these students are willfully stealing others’ work and hoping that they won’t get caught. From my experience, however, many students don’t seem to understand fully that what they are doing is theft. So what’s going on here?

There are several contributing factors: for one, the assignment was due shortly after midterms, so many of the students confessed that they were sloppy with their sources out of a combination of haste and laziness. The issue here is time management and organization. Another factor is that this particular class has been a challenge to keep engaged in the classroom, and it is very likely that my lessons on using sources simply didn’t sink in or the students weren’t paying attention.

A third contributing factor is, perhaps, the influence that sharing on social media is having on our society. Not only is it easy to do an image search or find something written on almost anything on the Internet, it is now extremely easy to ‘share’ what we find with our various online networks. All you have to do is click one of the various ‘share’ buttons on nearly any website or on any post on the different social media platforms. We share and share and share and never once think about amending our ‘shared’ posts with a citation indicating the source of the image or article it is that we are sharing. (Well, I do. But even I don’t always present my ‘citation’ in strict MLA or APA style.)

One of the implications of this feature of our online lives is the blurring of our understanding of intellectual property.

Anything we see or hear we can share with others. We expect information of all kinds, from music to articles to pictures to videos, to be easily accessible and free (or cheap). Because most of it is accessed through a screen that we own (a smartphone, tablet, or computer), whenever we want it, it’s possible that we feel like the material we are consuming is already ‘ours’. It’s just there, floating in the ether, waiting for us to consume it. As a result, it’s easy to forget that someone else made that material, and, as such, that someone should benefit from our consumption of their work. At the very least, that person should receive credit for what they have created.

So that is an added challenge to teaching information literacy and academic integrity: teaching also the relevance and importance of intellectual property.

Another contributing factor to the problem of academic dishonesty is that students misunderstand the purpose of assignments and assessment.

Too often students are focused on getting the ‘right’ answers to get ‘good grades’ rather than mastering concepts.

When writing an essay, students get distracted by wanting to appear like they know the content of their essay topic, whereas I am more interested in their methodology and whether they have understood the strategies we discussed about crafting an argument. A student writing about suicide prevention will copy and paste from a Psychology Today article to make it look like she knows the subject; I want to know if she knows how to appropriately and effectively use sources and is capable of critical thinking. What the student thinks is important is often at cross purposes with the purpose of the assignment.

So the issues here are not just underdeveloped information literacy skills, but also:

  • Underdeveloped time management and organization skills;
  • A lack of understanding of the concept of intellectual property;
  • A misunderstanding of the purpose of the assignments, and, perhaps, of (higher) education in general.

Realizing this will help me to better prepare for next semester as I know I will need to adjust and create lesson plans to address these issues. The responsibilities of a college writing instructor are much more than simply teaching how to write an essay; or rather, writing an essay involves much more than simply putting words on paper — but that’s another post entirely.

D&D 5e: Maya d’Lyrandar

As mentioned in a previous post, my monthly gaming group has started a campaign in the D&D setting Eberron.

Maya Zandos d’Lyrandar
Bard Class (airship captain extraordinaire!)

D&D Maya mini 2

Maya’s mini, painted by our other GM (who also painted Tess), and her dragonmark-themed dice.*

Maya is the daughter of Admiral Valanthe d’Lyrandar and heir to the dragonmarked House Lyrandar. Despite her early years and training in Stormhome, she calls the Lhazaar Principalities her home: Admiral Valanthe established a significant Lyrandar enclave in the pirate confederation due to the growing tension between herself and her twin, the House Baron Esravash.

She is captain of the airship Falling Skies, which was taken during the Last War. Maya was promoted from Midshipman Zandos to Captain Zandos a decade before her time by seizing, as she calls it, an opportunity. Airships are powered by bound elementals and when a ship is taken as a prize in battle and the crew subdued, the new presumptive captain must obtain the cooperation of the elemental in order to take control of the ship. Standard procedure allows the first lieutenant priority, and thus win a promotion and his first ship. But the elemental of Falling Skies wouldn’t talk to the first lieutenant, nor to the second lieutenant. As the captain and lieutenants discussed what to do next — they were considering towing the ship back to the closest Lyrandar enclave to let other high ranking lieutenants have a go — one of the midshipmen slipped over to the dragonshard at the helm, placed her hand on it, and asked the elemental its name. ‘Aeris,’ it answered with surprise. ‘Excellent,’ said the midshipman, ‘My name is Maya. What was your last captain like?’ Before the officers could intervene, Maya had established a rapport with the elemental and it would talk to no other. While some in the House were disgruntled at this turn of events, others noted the daring that is admired in House Lyrandar leaders.

One of Maya’s philosophies is: Good things come to those who seize opportunities.

Eberron - Rinmaru Mega Fantasy - Maya 3bAfter the cataclysm of the Mourning ended the War, Maya transported cargo and engaged in privateering — seizing opportunities — as well as attending society functions whenever she was in port. For both her status and her winning personality, Maya always gets invited to the best parties. It was at these parties that Maya came to know Lady Ceana d’Cannith, heir to House Cannith; Claire Loreden, the famous fencer-at-law; and Jett Keshi, an enigmatic Brelander spy. These four, along with Maya’s ship engineer, Jerrick Torrn of House Tharashk, and the gnomes Gnor and Rong, agreed to open their own inquisitive firm in Sharn. After a mishap with the Prime Minister’s cousin, however, they relocated to Stormreach in Xen’drik and took the name Skyfall Inquiries, Ltd.

Another of her philosophies is:  It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.**

mehndi dragonmark

Her mark looks like blue mehndi.

The dragonmarked House Lyrandar bears the Mark of Storm and Maya’s dragonmark covers the right side of her face, neck, and the entirety of her right arm. With this mark she can fly or pilot an airship or elemental galleon, and (through further training?) some weather working abilities. The Eberron setting was created for the earlier editions of D&D, but hasn’t been released for 5e, the system we are using. Thus, we are translating the Eberron setting into the new system, which means we’re still figuring out how the dragonmarks function practically. I plan to focus on weather-related spells when leveling up.

Eberron partyFor this campaign, our group held a pre-session party-making party to introduce our characters to each other and establish how they know each other and came to be working together for Skyfall Inquiries. We used the Fate Core system to create the character connections: using index cards, we wrote our characters’ names, tag lines, and the beginning of our characters’ first post-war adventure. Then we passed the cards around and added how our characters had supporting roles in those adventures. In this way we determined how Jerrick became engineer on Maya’s ship; that Maya, Jett, Ceana, and Claire frequented many of the same dinner parties; how Claire and Jerrick came to be mixed up with Gnor the Gnome (and his psychic friend, Rong); and so on. Then the GM led us in a pure role-playing session (no dice or character sheets) that served as the prologue to our first session.

These activities, combined with the group email in which we tossed the incident with the Prime Minister’s cousin back and forth round-robin style and the emails I’ve exchanged with the GM establishing the changes to House Lyrandar, have resulted in me as a player feeling more confident about both this new setting and my character. I’m also proud that I successfully built my character sheet on my own and needed only minor corrections. Needless to say, I’m excited to play my super charismatic half-elf bard airship captain who has a weakness for exotic jewelry, especially if it already belongs to someone else…


* Isn’t she marvellous? She even has a dragonmark. He also replaced the gun in her right hand with a sword. All of the minis he’s painted for this campaign are fantastic.

** I love that this quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Female admirals FTW.

Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.

Cambridge_time_2012

This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.


* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.

Writing Exercises: Synthesis

Before my students submit their first essay, I introduce them to the idea of synthesizing their research. I open the discussion with a description of how I usually see research used in student essays: a paragraph making a point with one source used for an example; another paragraph making another point with another source used for an example; and so on, which each paragraph referring to only one source and most sources only used once in on paragraph. This description often elicits nodding from students, agreeing that is how they use sources.

‘Using your sources that way works,’ I say, ‘But it isn’t very sophisticated and you aren’t getting much out of your sources this way. Today we are going to practice synthesizing your sources.’

Synthesis is joining the conversation.

Synthesis, I explain, is like having a conversation. Each of your sources is a person sitting a table in a café and they are talking about your topic. When you write your essay, you are pulling up a chair to their table and joining the conversation. Think about how you have conversations with a group of people: does each person speak in a monologue before passing the topic on to the next person at the table?

No. Instead, people talk over each other, interrupting each other, adding on to someone’s earlier point with an example of their own, or countering what someone said with an opinion. During a conversation, each person’s idea is woven in with the others’. That is what synthesis looks like when writing an essay.

Writing exercise:

I then organize the students into groups of four or five and give them this exercise:

Choose an issue on campus that all of you have an opinion about.* DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR OPINIONS YET. Once you have selected a topic, spend five minutes writing about it.

When everyone in your group is finished writing, choose one or two people to be the note-takers for your group. Then take turns reading your opinion aloud. The note-takers will pay attention to any repeated ideas, points of agreement, points of disagreement, and anything else that seems noteworthy – these are the “themes” of your conversation – and keep track of who said what. Review the notes as a group after everyone has finished reading.

Now organize the notes. You may find it helpful to use a chart:

Theme: Theme: Theme:
Name:
Name:
Name:
Name:
Name:

Now begin to think about how you would translate your chart into writing. For instance, you could write a paragraph about each person’s ideas summarizing their main points OR you could write a paragraph about each theme/idea and include all five points of view in each paragraph.

The first option is simply summarizing. The second option is SYNTHESIS.

Synthesis writing is more sophisticated and better demonstrates that you know what each source says about the subject and how the source relates to the other sources. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about each point in your group’s topic.

This exercise works well to introduce the meaning of synthesis and put it into practice. After discussing their results, I then provide them a Synthesis Matrix to use for their essay’s sources. The rest of the class period is spent filling out the synthesis matrix for their essays, and I wander around the room helping students to identify themes in their sources for their topics.

After introducing this exercise into my lesson plans, I have seen a dramatic improvement of how sources are used in my students’ essays.


* After a few times doing this exercise, I’ve banned the topic ‘parking on campus’ because inevitably every group chooses it. I’m tired of hearing people complain about parking and I’d rather them think of a more creative topic to discuss.

Eleanor

Opening line: ‘She sits in the breakfast nook and watches the rain.’

Eleanor - Jason GurleyEleanor — there are two Eleanors, herself and the grandmother she was named after — does her best to live a normal teenager’s life while also taking care of her alcoholic mother. Tragedy seems to run in her family: her grandmother’s disappearance, the car crash that killed her twin sister, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s bitter and angry retreat from reality through alcohol. The tragedy continues when Eleanor herself disappears, first for hours, then days, then years at a time, with no rational explanation for what is happening to her. What she does know, however, is that there is a reason she keeps being transported to these different dream worlds, if only she could figure out what it is…

The novel Eleanor isn’t quite sci-fi or fantasy, but rather magical realism. The narrative tells the story of this troubled family from multiple perspectives: the first Eleanor, her daughter Agnes as an adult, the younger Eleanor, as well as Agnes’s husband, Eleanor’s friend Jack, and a mysterious consciousness that is outside of human time but has the power to pluck Eleanor from her world and drop her into another. What first caught my attention was the descriptions of the sea off the Northwestern American coast, then by the author’s skillful portrayal of the characters as fully human and flawed. Eleanor does not figure out what is going on until the final quarter of the book, but even then I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do as she continued to travel the dream worlds to heal her family’s hurts. Thus intrigued, I kept reading, but in the end I felt my curiosity was unrewarded. The ending was too tidy while simultaneously leaving many unanswered questions. Somehow, with a form of time travel left unexplained, a fateful moment is changed with the assumption that all following events will also change for the better: no car crash, no divorce, no alcoholism. But what will be the consequences of that change? Not just for that family, but for everyone connected to them? Are the consequences ‘worth it’? Ultimately, I was disappointed that the novel failed to grasp the complexity of changing a person’s timeline and that doing so is not the simple cure for one family’s troubles.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.