A Feast of Ice and Fire

October 4th, 2011  |  Published in Fantasy

I have long believed that you cannot truly understand a culture without understanding (eating) its food. And so I am excited to see the announcement of a companion cookbook for George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series: A Feast of Ice and Fire. All sorts of interesting looking food in there that I look forward to trying.

Lord Of The Rings and The Chosen One

June 22nd, 2011  |  Published in Comedy, Fantasy, writing

I don’t know how I never noticed it before, but in Lord of the Rings, the hero is not the Chosen One. That is to say that Frodo is not so special as to make me unable to relate to him. He is not part of a prophecy, he is not the rare person born with a one in a million special ability, he is simply a better than average example of his people. How is it that modern fantasy has emulated everything else about Tolkien (trilogies, worldbuilding, obsession with description) but has managed to forget about this one key aspect?

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The Fall of Alacan

March 11th, 2011  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction

I just saw over at Tobias Buckell’s blog that he has a new short story called The Fall of Alacan that is a prequel to his novella, The Executioness (of which I am a fan). So if you haven’t gotten a chance to read the book yet, you can find the story online in the Spring issue of Subterranean Magazine.

The Executioness and The Alchemist Review

March 1st, 2011  |  Published in Fantasy, review

For those of you who aren’t spending the day reading the new Rothfuss book, but still want some quality fantasy, do I have a treat for you.  I just finished reading The Executioness by Tobias Buckell and The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi, two novellas set in a shared world and published by Subterranean Press.

The Executioness follows the story of a middle aged mother who follows a path of vengeance after her husband is killed and her children are abducted as part of a raid. The Alchemist follows the story of an alchemist who is attempting to build a device to fight against the bramble that is slowly choking their world. Although the stories do not directly interact, they both start in the same locality, and read together, they contribute to a quite fully realized world (a feat all the more impressive given their diminutive length).

I could go on at length about how developed the characters are, or about the plotting, but I will suffice to say that Buckell and Bacigalupi are both clearly masters of their art, and their works bear testament to that. What I really want to talk about, however, is about how these two stories are the epitome not only of what good speculative fiction does, but also of what good fantasy does.

One of the things that speculative fiction can do well that most genres struggle with is to take difficult issues that are laden with cultural and emotional baggage, and remove them from their context, allowing the reader to look at them in a different, and perhaps more objective, light. In this case, the entire world is an allegory of global climate change, with each bit of magic used causing the bramble to grow. Think of the bramble as blackberry on crack, but it doesn’t bear fruit (delicious or otherwise), reproduces at an increased rate when burned, and has poisonous thorns. Unlike many climate change allegories, the stories don’t feel preachy, the issues are being presented as complex and there are no easy answers

As for the fantasy specific aspect, one of the things that it as a genre can do that few others can is illuminate the connections and relationships that are otherwise invisible in our world. Often, causality is very difficult to determine, or at least very easy to cast doubt upon (think about the tobacco industry propoganda about cancer). In fantasy, however, an author can make those relationships explicit, and use that as a way to talk about things which would otherwise be clouded by doubt and uncertainty. In good fantasy, every action has consequences, moreso than the real world. Both authors have used this facet of fantasy to good effect, illuminating the channels of power and influence much the same way that fluorescent dye is used to illuminate fractures and schisms of apparently solid objects.

Did the stories have any issues? Sure. In Bacigalupi’s story I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending, and with Buckell’s I felt that the other women were perhaps painted with too broad a brush, but each story was only about 100 pages, and I understand the need to make certain narrative choices. Also, I would have liked to see an e-book edition, as the books will probably look a little pricey at $20 a piece (I assure you, they are worth it), which is probably why the book store that I work at doesn’t carry them (although it should). They do compensate for that by being beautifully produced, and will find a home on my shelf next to another wonderful fantasy volume (also published by Subterranean), Scalzi’s The God Engines. With any luck, there are more of these stories yet to come.

In short, do whatever you must, but read these books, they are far and away the best fantasy I have read in a while, although that may be in part because they do so well what I am attempting to do with my Broken Shores series of stories (I know, shameless plug, but pretty smooth, right?) which you should go read while you are waiting for your copies to arrive in the mail.

Moral Complexity

May 18th, 2010  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction, Uncategorized

So, after recommendations by a couple of my coworkers, I read The The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett this last weekend.  The book was good, but not great.  The concept is good, post-apocalyptic fantasy setting in which demons come out each night.  What this means is that the humans as a species are barely holding on, only able to be out during the day, and everything is scarce.  Good so far.

Then we come to the wards.  Apparently, there are wards that can be used to keep out demons (the old combat wards that would allow humans to fight demons on an even footing are lost).  I don’t have a problem with the wards themselves, but rather how they are implemented.  I was hoping for something like David Farland’s Runelords series (where runes are very powerful, but require scarce materials, knowledge, and a donor to work), but instead I get a book where all that is required to create wards is knowledge and time (Arlen, one of the central characters, can do it by instinct before his teens).

This leads to all sort of problems (such as why the wards aren’t tattooed on people at birth), but the problem that I’m interested in is that it is one-sided, there is no sacrifice.  If power can be had without sacrifice, you can rest assured that humans will have exploited it to within an inch of its life.  More importantly, when you have magic that requires sacrifice, it creates moral complexity, and that is one of the things that differentiates between a good story and a great one.

Ultimately, I believe that all storytelling is based on conflict, and that the conflict that we like is the conflict that we can relate to.  You may be asking what relatability has to do with Fantasy.  Well, in this case, I would say that one of the central aspects of every single person’s life is the concept of sacrifice and trade-offs, which we encounter virtually every time we make a choice.  Combined with speculative fiction’s ability to take issues and allow us to examine them without the baggage that we have in reality, you can tell a very powerful story.  In short, when you are creating a fantasy setting, magic needs to be balanced with sacrifice if it is to be at all relevant.

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May 15th, 2008  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction, Publishing, SciFi, Society

I was just browsing the scifi reddit, and I came across a comment thread titled Does it REALLY bug anyone else when they go to a library or book store and the sci-fi and fantasy sections are combined? I thought “this might be interesting” and so checked it out.  Damn.  The comments consist almost entirely of how much fantasy sucks, and how the only genre worth reading is scifi  I don’t recall ever seeing the fantasy crowd attacking the scifi crowd like this.

My theory is that the scifi crowd was simply trying to gain some legitimacy at the expense of fantasy, and unfortunately this sort of thing just reaffirms it.  Depressing.

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The Blurring Line Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

April 23rd, 2008  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction, Publishing, Science Fiction, SciFi, writing

In response to one of my posts yesterday, crochetyoldfan noted that it looked like I was espousing the view that the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy is being blurred (the rest of his blog is interesting as well). Although I hadn’t been thinking about that topic while I was writing, it is one that I have meant to write about for some time now, so now is as good a time as any.

First of all, I am not saying that Science Fiction and Fantasy are merging, unless you consider bringing them both under the banner of Speculative Fiction achieves that (which I don’t). What I am saying is that they share more similarities than differences. There are several reasons for this.

The first is that there is considerable overlap in goals. As I mentioned yesterday, one of the primary goals (in my opinion) for Science Fiction is to take current situations and remove the social baggage that is attached to them so that we can look at them from a fresh perspective. This definitely carries over to fantasy. There is room for debate as to which situations are best dealt with by which genres, but I would be surprised to see many fans of either genre say that either one is incapable of doing this.

The second reason is that both genres inherently contain elements of the others. For example, take Faster Than Light, right now it is as much fantasy as it is science fiction. On the other hand, what makes magic systems work for readers has a lot to do with how consistently they are presented, similar to the way an SF author will extrapolate science and technology to present a compelling vision of the future.

My final reason is that technology today has reached a level of incomprehensibility that effectively renders it magic to the majority of the population. This is not to make the elitist argument that people are stupid or ignorant, but merely that you have to have a compelling interest in technology to actually go to the trouble of understanding it (and a lot of this probably has to do with our education system, but thats another discussion). Most people could not tell you what a horsepower is or what clock speed means, much less explain something like cryptography, although these things all figure prominently into our daily lives. As a result, the perspective of a person reading about magic and looking at technology will become increasingly similar.

So is this blurring of boundaries good or bad? One could make the argument that it is simply the result of the growth of the genres and as such can’t be classified as either good or bad, but I would disagree. I believe that both of the genres are important, both as forms of entertainment as well as art that is meant to make the world(s) a better place. Very little bothers me more than when I see Science Fiction fans/authors bashing Fantasy or the reverse, usually with claims of things like escapism, as though one genre can gain some legitimacy by bashing the other. Both of them are valid, and every second spent criticizing any genre or art form is a moment that could be much better spent promoting whatever it is that you enjoy. The world is a messed up place, and if we are to have any expectation of progress, it can only come about if we abandon our prejudices, whether they be about race, sex, religion, or art.

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Book Review: The Little Book of Pandemics

January 26th, 2008  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, SciFi, writing

The Little Book of PandemicsWhen I first started flipping though The Little Book of Pandemics, by Dr. Peter Moore, my first thought was that it would be really useful for writing post-apocalyptic fiction. It quickly dawned on me that if you’re writing about a superbug, this probably isn’t the book for you. Although there is plenty of scary stuff in here, if you’re looking for something of truly civilization-ending proportions, you would probably be better off inventing something new like airborne AIDS or something that has a Children of Men sort of effect.

Where a book like this really comes in handy, though, is with fantasy. Most fantasy relies on the assumption that things like cholera and typhoid are simply dealt with by means of magic. If you want to include that sort of detail (or possibly write a story where magic or technology simply ceases to work), this is the book for you. It does a fantastic job of describing how, exactly, these diseases are spread, how they affect the body, and what environments they are found in, as well as other interesting information.

Aside from it’s already mentioned utility, the book is well laid out and interesting in its own right, although some may find it a bit grim for pleasure reading. This book definitely has a spot on a writer’s reference shelf, regardless of what sort of story you write. Highly recommended.

A final note: My wife bought this book for me while we were in Canada. Unfortunately, it will not be released in the states until February 12, 2008. If you need it now, you can order it from Amazon Canada.

Fantasy Worldbuilding 102

October 8th, 2007  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction, writing

Last week I wrote a bit about how to tell when to stop and when to keep going when you are doing worldbuilding.  The next question, then, is what do you focus on.  To put it another way, what should your goals be?  The reason why it is important to talk about goals here is that it is another way to keep you from doing too much worldbuilding (by too much, I mean that it keeps you from actual writing).  I could go on, but I think that you probably get it, so I’ll get on with the article.

Goal #1 – You need a place for stuff to happen.  Frankly, having everything happen in an empty room or a misty plain will probably make for a boring story (not necessarily, of course, but if you go that route, make sure that your prose not only jumps off the page, but latches onto the reader’s imagination like a facehugger from Aliens).  This is probably the easiest goal to meet (and obvious to boot), so I won’t say much more about it.

Goal #2 – Your world should help to distinguish  your work from that of other writers.  You don’t want people to pick up your story and immediately think that its happening in a clone of George R.R. Martin’s universe.  How do you do this?  Add local flavor (a little goes a long way), mess with the system of government (this is fantasy, so it doesn’t have to be a monarchy), the basic rules of the world (what if the forests were made of giant ferns instead of trees, what would people build stuff out of? How would it affect society?), or some combination of the three (or other elements, its up to you).  The key here is not to add shallow flavor, you don’t want something that looks, smells, and acts like a horse but is called a wulleyup, it doesn’t add anything to the story, and readers will probably reject it.

Goal #3 – Make it a place for a story to happen.  Even stories that are very character driven rely quite a bit on the world for plot.  The world you create should not be at a state of peace, but rather should have conflict built in (and trust me, even in a perfect society, there will be conflict somewhere, if not everywhere).  This will provide for better characterization fodder as well as subplots and world story arcs, all of which are good.

Goal #4 – Make it work.  You want readers to have to suspend their disbelief as little as possible.  I’m not saying that you should not have magic, but rather that once you get the reader to buy into the magic, you don’t want to have to invent a new kind of magic to explain something that could have easily been explained by the first.  What I’m getting at here is that the key to all of this is internal consistency.  Ideally a story should have a few basic premises that people have to accept, and everything else is derived from them (in addition, when a reader sees other stuff built on top of an original premise, and it works, the net effect is to reinforce the original premise).

I think that is about as much as I want to go through today, and next time I’ll try to touch on some specific things that you should shoot for.  Until then, feel free to give me your thoughts on the subject.

Fantasy Worldbuilding 101

October 2nd, 2007  |  Published in Fantasy, Fiction, writing

I just finished listening to the Dead Robots Society’s podcasts (part 1, part 2) on building a universe, and while I liked them quite a bit, they made me wonder, what should go into a world when you’re starting from scratch. As a result, I’m going to give you some of my thoughts on the subject. Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be only for fantasy writing, but I think that fantasy writers will get the most out of it, as that is my personal focus.

The first thing to remember about worldbuilding is that you don’t want to do too much of it. On the other hand, it is just as big of a danger to do too little.  So the challenge, then is finding the right amount.  The four rules below are not hard and fast (except for the first one), but I think that they provide a good basis from which to talk about how to go about worldbuilding.

Rule #1: The story dictates all.  The amount of worldbuilding you have to do is dictated almost entirely by the story, after all, if the entire story takes place on an isolated island, then who cares about the continent on the other side of the world that no one on the island has ever heard of?  If there is any one thing that you should take away from what I write here, this is it.  Everything else that I write will be stuff to help you determine just how much the story does dictate.

Rule #2: If you can’t picture the environment that your characters are walking around and doing stuff in, then you haven’t done enough.  It is easy to do just enough that you can get a sense of what is there, but everything is sort of blurry and vague.  You don’t have to know what sort of wood the lord’s house is made out of (unless its critical to the story, in which case, it had better be damn interesting), but you don’t want to rely on residual memories of other authors work to paint in the details for you (your readers will not have read all the same stuff you have, and besides, its boring).  Corollary to this is that a few rich details are worth reams of mundane description, focus on the interesting stuff.

Rule #3:  Stop when it gets easy.  If you can write down five pages on just about anything in your world without thinking about it too much, then you already know enough about the world to start writing.  The point of worldbuilding is not to work out every single detail, but rather to get your head inside of the world, where you can see it, so that your prose will be authentic.

Rule #4:  If its hard, ask yourself why.  If its because you’re still making basic decisions about how things will work, then you should keep on going.  If, on the other hand, its because you’re making decisions that are so small that there isn’t enough to go on, then you should stop.  Too much worldbuilding is something that keeps many new authors from actually writing.  Remember, its a step in the path to a destination (the finished story), nothing more.

As always, feel free to leave comments.  I am doing this for me as well as for everyone else, and since I am not a master of it, I may (and probably have) get a few things wrong, in which case I expect you to call me on them.  Good luck and happy worldbuilding.