The Big Idea: Lee Arthur Chane
Posted on October 4, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 24 Comments
Author Lee Arthur Chane wishes to suggest that sometimes, one big idea is not enough for a book — or at the very least, it wasn’t enough for his fantasy novel, Magebane. Was he correct? The reviews are inclined to his point of view: The starred Publishers Weekly review claims that “Double and triple crosses, fast-paced action, and powerful moral conviction will have readers hanging on every word.” That seems enough to let Chane explain his heretical idea of multiple big ideas here.
LEE ARTHUR CHANE:
I know this is called “The Big Idea,” but I trust Mr. Scalzi isn’t too much of stickler on that point, because, alas, my new fantasy novel Magebane didn’t grow out of a single big idea. Instead, it grew out of four ideas: three big ones, and one not-so-big one. (But I suppose “The Big 3 1/2 Ideas” isn’t nearly as catchy a name for a recurring blog feature.)
What were these ideas, I hear you ask? Pray allow me to enumerate.
First: it is, of course, one of the hoariest of fairy-tale tropes that an enchantment can be broken with a kiss: typically, a prince kissing a princess. But one day while I was musing on this (and since I have a small daughter, princesses are something I have mused about quite often), I had the notion of writing a story in which a kiss didn’t just break an enchantment, it broke all enchantments: a story in which a kiss between a (sort-of) prince and a (kind-of) princess that would bring magic itself crashing down in ruin.
Now, that’s a somewhat subversive notion in fantasy fiction. Typically in fantasies the destruction of magic is not something devoutly to be wished: instead, they’re all about the restoration of magic, or at least the triumph of good magic over bad magic. But magic is, ultimately, a form of power: and like all power, it can be abused. Particularly if some people have it, and others don’t.
Second: since I was already thinking subversively in terms of making the overthrowing of magic a good thing, I continued thinking subversively about another common fantasy trope, the idea that restoring the rightful king to a throne can solve all that has gone wrong in a kingdom.
In the real world, restoring absolute monarchs to power is generally not seen as a good thing. I mean, an absolute monarch is just a dictator with a jeweled hat, when you come right down to it. In the real world, we (well, most of us, at least) celebrate the overthrow of tyrants…even the ones that have been, perhaps, less tyrannical than some of their peers.
Where, I asked myself, are the democratic revolutionaries within fantasy fiction?
I decided to create some.
The third big idea: what happens in a world with magic when technology (any sufficiently advanced version of which, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, is indistinguishable from magic) begins to give those who cannot wield magic the same abilities as those who can?
With three ideas in hand, I fired up my story-making cauldron, tossed in the ideas, stewed and steeped and stirred for a while, and eventually poured off 150,000 words of what I’d like to think is pretty tasty story.
In Magebane, the tyrannical MageLords, who rule by virtue of their magical power (pretty much their only virtue), were thrown down from power centuries past in their old kingdom by the Commoners, the non-magical people they rule, with the help of something or someone called the Magebane. Fearing for their lives, they used magic to flee to the far side of the world, where they established a new kingdom, protected from attack by an impenetrable magical barrier.
But now there are various MageLords who would like to remove that Barrier and exert influence over the outside world again, there is a new Magebane…and there are, bubbling up from the increasingly technological advanced Commoners trapped in the kingdom with them, the beginnings of rebelliousness.
What no one in the kingdom realizes is that the Commoners outside, for whom the MageLords are nothing but myth, have explored the world right up to the Great Barrier itself…and that their technology had advanced far beyond that of the Commoners within the Barrier. That is, no one realizes it until one young man crash lands in the kingdom aboard the experimental airship that has just flown over the Barrier…
Yes, that’s right: my big fat fantasy novel is also steampunky!
As for the small idea that is also part of the Magebane mix? That’s the setting. The hidden kingdom of the MageLords is largely prairie in the south and forests in the north, with lots of lakes.
It has, in fact, the same geography as the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, where I live. And there’s more: in the kingdom’s capital, there is a white stone palace on the southern shore of a manmade man-made lake…just as there is in Saskatchewan’s capital city of Regina, where the Saskatchewan Legislative Building rises on the south shore of Wascana Lake, just a couple of blocks from my house.
Alas, the real lake and the real park surrounding it are not magically protected from winter’s ravages like the one in the book. You could call that wish-fulfillment, if you like, and I daresay you’d be correct.
But then, you could also call the whole book a kind of wish-fulfillment: a wish for fantasy that recognizes that even a benevolent dictator is still a dictator, and that whatever Tolkien may have primed us to believe, The Return of the King is not necessarily a happy ending.
Also, a wish for more fantasy with airships.
Because airships, like bow-ties on The Doctor, are cool.
Magebane: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Okay, this looks like fun! I’m in. :)
This may sound overly cynical . . . but every time I run into that tired quote from Arthur C. Clarke, I reflect that Clarke was a hard-science science fiction writer who (in my opinion) didn’t understand magic: could not grasp that something might exist, even in fiction, that didn’t reduce to hard principles, something that tapped into poetry and imagery instead, something that could be implied instead of explicated. My usual reaction is to suspect that the person quoting him doesn’t understand this either — that is, that I am facing yet another book in which all the magic has been leached out of ‘magic’.
Then I go re-read Ursula LeGuin or Tamora Pierce instead of buying the new book. Each to our own; sorry. This is my honest opinion and my real response, and it ends with a lost sale.
I’ve read about 50 pages or so today. This pesky job thing won’t allow me to read more until I get home this evening. But, I’m really liking what I’ve read so far.
I’m giving this one a try on my Kindle. I’m not much of a fantasy fan, but it seems that this one might be more of a cross over.. We’ll see…
You had me airships.
Magic takes the form required by the story. BTW, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
You wrote a gaslamp fantasy. That’s the term Phil Foglio uses for his Girl Genius series, in which tech is run by magic. He has an entire city based on airships BTW.
I actually agree with you in many ways, and I like books where the magic is allowed to be magic and not tie in with technology or the laws of physics as we know them, too. That just doesn’t happen to be the book I wrote this time. As Alan says, “magic takes the form required by the story.”
You’re quite right. It is a kind of gaslamp fantasy. I’ve heard the term but hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it. Thanks for reminding me! (One thing I didn’t mention in the essay is that the MageLords get the energy for their big magics from coal furnaces and natural gas flares, so “gaslamp fantasy” is highly apropros. Although “coalfurnace fantasy” has a nice ring to it, too.)
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. but I dont think that also requires that magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced tecnology. The statement at most says that technology is a subset of magic. But there can be magic that has no technological equivalent.
I like the premise that magic isn’t the be-all end-all and if the world only got it back we’d all have ponies and live happily ever after. Worlds are made up of people, bless their pointed little heads, and they’ll always be contentious and rowdy and occasionally unpleasant. Magic won’t change that.
You had me at an airship invading the magical separatists’ commune. This sounds right up my alley.
Fezzes are cool too, you know.
Yes, I know. And Stetsons!
I don’t usually read fantasy unless it’s Harry Dresden or Harry Potter. I want to read this book…
I don’t know if you should have told me that your palace grounds were based on the SK legislative buildings and Wascana Lake :-). I have a very distinct picture in my head now, of your opening scene with the Prince by the lake with a wall of winter and the open prairie just a short distance away. Looking forward to reading the rest!
Ari B. — so you only read fantasies with protagonists named Harry? Hmm…
This sounds interesting (like I need another book on That Pile, sigh) and yeah, “magic” and “technology” change within the context of each book they show up in, but I’m willing to grant lots of leeway for a good story.
I was all “That sounds kinda neat” up until the part about Saskatchewan.
Now I have to read it.
Indeed. Like bow ties, fezzes AND Stetsons, Saskatchewan is cool.
I like your big ideas, sir. The democracy vs. monarchy concept, especially, is way overdue for some deconstruction in fantasy literature.
And we’re neighbors!
I’m definitely checking this out on the Kindle. Saskatchewan does have the most beautiful and palatial Legislature in Canada, after all.
Not available for Kindle in Australia!!! Grrr. Please berate publishers accordingly
I’d say Clarke’s comment suggests that advanced technology may look like magic, not necessarily that all magic is in fact advanced technology (though I am sure he would have believed it). It is Niven’s Law that goes: “Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.”
Veering off topic, but seeing Lee Arthur Chane, Magebane made me wonder how often titles rhyme with the author’s surname? None I can think of in five seconds, so I will make some up: Arthur C. Clarke, Expedition in the Dark; Charles Stross, The Laundry Boss; HG Wells, The War of the Bells; H. Beam Piper, The Cosmic Sniper; Robert Heinlein, Have Sharp Suit, Will Fine Dine; JK Rowling, Harry Potter and Muggle-Blood Foaling. (Scalzi would be tricky to pull off).
I was about to buy this (and Ganymede, from a few posts back) but no kindle UK version.
So no sale.
Pity, because they both sound great.
Think I’m a little late to the party but I just recently finished this book and it was amazing! Loved it! Thank you, Mr. Chane.
I just finished the book and loved it. Just a superb read! Please Mr. Chane, a sequel is in order. Did the Kingdom enter a civil war?
Belatedly…Steven, there’s a sequel planned but not yet contracted. Keep your fingers crossed!