About ogresan

Richard Parks' stories have have appeared in Asimov's SF, Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and numerous anthologies, including several Year's Bests. His first story collection, THE OGRE'S WIFE, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. He is the author of the Yamada Monogatari series from Prime Books.

Observations on the Good Neighbors

Anyone with an interest in either the literal or the more general “fairy tales,” specifically writing them, needs references. For one thing, a good reference is chock a block full of story ideas waiting to be discovered. For another, and just as important, they help you avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect of thinking you know more about a subject than you actually do. So with that in mind, I’m going to list my own top five references for information about fairyland (in the very broadest sense) and legends.

Number 1, as should be obvious, is An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogles, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs, Pantheon Books, 1976.

As far as I’m concerned, this the Bible on the subject. I’ve lost count of the story notions I’ve gleaned from it, and if there’s a supernatural denizen of the British Isles and Ireland that’s not gotten its due somewhere inside, I’ve missed it. It not only described what is believed known about such creatures, but includes at least some stories/foklore surrounding them to place them in proper context. It’s not going to say much about, say, kitsune, but what it covers it covers very well.

Number 2: A Field Guide to the Little People, By Nancy Arrowswmith w/George Moorse, Hill and Wang, NY, 1977.

This book goes a little further afield, with stories from Britain, Ireland, Russia, Scandinavia, Italy, Germany, etc. Like Briggs’ book, Arrowsmith includes illustrative stories about each creature, and divides the book into sections concerning Light, Dark, and Dusky folk, depending on their temperament. It is not as comprehensive as Briggs, but far wider reaching and a great complement. If I want to get information on a folletti or rusalka, this is where I go.

Number 3: The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People, Thomas Keightly, Crown Publishers, 1978, reprint of 1878 edition.

A bit more archaic in style but covers well what it does cover, mostly Persia, Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland and Britain. Again, illustrates the folklore of the individual creatures rather than giving a simple description. A good book to get lost in.

Number 4: A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Creatures, Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack, Henry Holt, 1998

Don’t let the title fool you. “Demons” in this context mostly refers to ancient spirits and gods which were demoted when later religions moved into the area. Sometimes fairies suffered the same fate, but the book does try to distinguish between the two. Not as exhaustive as the earlier books, but covers an even broader swath of the supernatural, including creatures from the Middle East, Asia, Australia, South America, etc. If what you’re looking for isn’t in any of the previous references, this is the place to go.

Number 5: The Children’s Hour, Vol 8: Myths and Legends, Marjorie Barrows, Ed., Spencer Press, 1953 edition.

I’m including this because it’s a sentimental favorite of mine, is still a useful reference, and is exactly what the title describes. It’s a compendium of folklore and stories from around the world, including the New World. There’s Paul Bunyan and John Henry, tales from Africa, tales from Greek Legend, Robin Hood, The Apples of Iduna from Norse legend, King Arthur, Cuchulain, The Song of Roland…you get the idea. This is one of the books that gave me my early love of reading and, well, you see where that led.

I regret nothing.

Where It’s At

All right, full disclosure. If it isn’t already obvious, the fourth and final volume of The Laws of Power series is taking longer than it probably should have. I’ve written some books in as little as three months, which is blazing speed for me. A year or less is more normal. Then again, I know some people who can write one in a week. On the other hand, the first novel I ever wrote took about five years. Maybe because I didn’t know what I was doing.

I still don’t know what I’m doing, but have since learned this is not an obstacle. You learn as you go, and by the time you’re done, you know how to write that book or that story. Then there’s the next one.

All by way of saying I’ve been going by fits and starts, and sometimes there were days when I couldn’t even look at the thing. For the sake of my own sanity, I finally had to ask myself why, and the answer was obvious:

I didn’t want to say goodbye.

The first story that eventually became the Laws of Power series was “What Power Holds,” published way back in 1994 in Dragon. These characters have been with me for a long time, even when I was writing other books and hundreds (yes, by now it is hundreds) of short stories. It was well past time to close the loop. I was able to do it (mostly) with Yamada, and Marta and company deserve the same consideration.

I will get there, assuming I’m not scheduled to drop dead beforehand. I am finally making progress at a more sustainable rate, losing the mental block. I appreciate those who haven’t lost patience just yet. I hope I can finish before that happens.

PS: I had done an excerpt or two here, but I’m not sure that’s the best idea. I was thinking of moving any future episodes to the more private mailing list. If you have an opinion on that, let me hear it.

Amazing Ways

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People are weird.

…and before I pause to thank Captain Obvious, I’m saying hello to Mr. Editor and already revising for accuracy. “People” implies everybody, and in my experience everyone isn’t weird. Don’t get me wrong, some people are incredibly weird. I’ve met a few in my time. But they’re not all that common. Not exactly rare, mind, but not really common. It takes a great amount of difference in worldview and habits and interests and behavior to cross the line from merely “different” to outright weird.

What people really are, almost without exception, is complicated.

Crappy people have their good points. Saints are riddled with shadow, and a lot of the time neither condition makes a lick of sense. Try to get to the heart of any of it and usually you’re left with some variation of “because that’s the way it is.”

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in this space, I was raised Southern Baptist. I almost said “strict” Southern Baptist, but that borders on redundant. No drinking except when there was. No dancing. Period. Lots of Sundays in the pew, lots of hymns. I like to say I put it all behind me years ago…almost.

Amazing Grace. I still love that song. Lyric wise I no longer believe a word of it. But I like the music. So much so that, to this very day, I’ll tear up a bit when I hear a decent version of it. Do it with bagpipes and I’m likely, if briefly, an emotional wreck.

I’m still trying to sort out the why of that, and the only answer I’ve ever come up with is simply this:

It’s complicated.

Oh, So THAT’S Why…

I think some people believe the hardest part of writing a novel (or, come to that a short story) is figuring out what happens.

Hah.

Well, to be fair I can only speak from my own experience. I generally know what happens, as in, I know the end, and sometimes I know it before I’ve written the first paragraph. I know the events as they unfold, even if I couldn’t write a plot outline to save my life. I even start writing scenes from the end in my head before I’m anywhere near the end. Now, true, I don’t usually know how to get there. Figuring that out is the hard grunt work of actually writing the book.

However…

There’s a point of progress even more crucial than knowing WHAT or HOW. I have to know WHY.

Why is essential . Knowing ‘why’ informs everything I write in the book from there on. More, it explains to me how what I’ve already written fits into the WHY. And if, for some reason, the previous material doesn’t fit into the why, it has to go, and time to start over. Fortunately, for me that rarely happens. It usually seems that my subconscious is smarter than I am and has already figured out WHY and is only waiting for me to catch up. Good thing, too, otherwise I’d write even slower than I do already.

I was reminded of this in a scene I just finished for The Seventh Law of Power. I already knew the How and What. Now I finally know Why.

Passing For Human

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Almost everyone has heard of the Turing Test. Named after Alan Turing, a British mathematical genius and one of the designers of the first ever stored-program computer. In its simplest form, the test has three participants: One is a human (A) typing into a computer terminal, another is a computer program (B), and the third (C) is also human, who receives messages from and sends messages to both (A) and (B).

The trick is the third person (C) doesn’t know which of the other two is the human and which is the machine. They ask questions and receive answers. If, at the end of the trial, (C) can’t tell which one of the two is the computer, the computer is said to have passed the Turing Test and therefore can be said to be thinking on a human level, which is believed to be the prerequisite of Artificial General Intelligence, which is the holy grail of AI research.

Rubbish.

Meaning no disrespect to Alan Turing, a brilliant man who was treated very poorly by a country which owed him a tremendous debt of gratitude. It’s more that modern AI research has developed in ways almost no one really foresaw back in the 1950s.

Most modern AI models are based on a technique called “deep learning,” where the program is trained against masses and masses of data and “learns” to predict or discern patterns. This is narrow AI. It does the thing it was trained to do extremely well, often better than the best human, but only that one thing. The best chess-playing algorithm/model can’t change gears and play Go, at least not without forgetting how to play chess. An AI that can learn to do anything we can do and retain every new skill would be a lot closer to AGI, or artificial general intelligence. That is, it would be a generalist like us. Wake me when that happens.

To date, and despite a few disputed claims to the contrary, no computer program has beaten the Turing Test. Some have come close, and I firmly believe the Turing Test will be beaten, possibly soon, but it will be beaten by a narrow AI, not an AGI. It will be beaten by a program/AI model which has absolutely no idea what it’s saying, or what you’re saying to it, though it will appear to be doing both. It’s an illusion.

True, language is a skill like any other, and great strides are being made in AI which can now converse on a near-human level, orders of magnitude better than the first chatbots. This is, I admit, astonishing and I’m curious to see how far it progresses.

There is a catch, of course. One noted researcher is of the opinion that AI will only pass the Turing Test when it learns to lie. Think about it. All (C) has to do is ask “Where do you live?” and if the AI tells the truth, it’s game over.

Again, rubbish.

Not because it isn’t true, but because the best natural language models of AI already know how to lie. Maybe they’re not “aware” that this is what they’re doing, but the fact remains. Just listen to any conversation between a human and one of the more advanced AI language models. It lies constantly. It’ll tell you what movies it’s seen in theaters. It’ll tell you how much it likes going to the beach and walking on the sand. It’ll tell you how it feels about sunsets. It’ll tell you where it lives.

In an ironic way, I believe the fact that AI can lie is the current crowning achievement of AI. It’s almost human of them. Maybe they’ll beat the Turing Test even sooner than I think.

©2022 Richard Parks