It went well, I thought. First, we had a surprising (to me) number of people show up for an event on 10:30 on a Saturday; I don’t mind telling you I was skeptical that anyone would show up at that hour. So to everyone who did: You’re awesome, and thank you.
In addition to my usual schtick of a reading and a Q&A, the library did a very nice thing and presented me with a plaque thanking me for the donations that were made through my Redshirts auction, and also dedicated a corner of the library to me — naturally, the corner where they keep all the science fiction works. I am of course genuinely touched by that, and told the folks there that what this means is that from now I can no longer get in any sort of trouble, because if they do, they might take the plaque down. And, you know. That would be bad.
I read from Redshirts and from The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, but I also read this piece from my Thanksgiving Advent calendar, in which I discussed why I was thankful I lived in Bradford. As I was reading it I was very surprised to find myself choking up; reading it in front of a hometown audience got to me, and I’m an easy crier in any event. Fortunately no one seemed to mind.
It’s a little nervewracking to do a public event in your hometown; if you flub it up, everyone will see you in the IGA later, and that’s not good. So I’m glad everyone seemed happy with the event.
And leaves an interesting and explanatory comment on his decision to write on the Clarke Award selections this year. The comment is here, and I commend it to folks wishing to have further context to what has become science fiction’s polemical event of the year (at least until the Hugo slate comes out exactly one week from now).
Also, I’ll go ahead and put this out there right now, which is that folks who choose to respond directly to Mr. Priest’s comments here should keep in mind that I have comment policies, and that I police them with the Mallet of Loving Correction. Christopher Priest left a good and useful comment; see that you do the same.
So go and vote. It’s a great slate this year so you have excellent work to choose from. And once you’ve voted, tell every other SFWA active and lifetime active member you know to go vote as well. You will be my hero if you do. Thank you.
I’ll also note that on further reflection, regarding Damien G. Walter’s estimation of what motivated Priest to pop off, I’ve gone from neutral to skeptical. Part of that is that Walter’s estimation that “Christopher Priest has spent his entire career being close enough to the top table to smell the gravy, but has never quite been invited to sit down” falls apart on closer examination. Priest is critically lauded in and out of the genre, has won scads of awards (including the Clarke), has been a New York Times bestseller and has seen one of his works adapted into a successful film; as I noted yesterday in the comment thread to my first Priest piece, not only is Christopher Priest at the table, he’s got an entire tureen of gravy to himself. I don’t think bitterness and/or jealous ultimately comes into it. The piece reads to me not as the work of an outsider with his nose smooged up against the glass, but of an insider who wonders who the hell let the rabble in.
Part of it is, to expand a bit on what I noted yesterday, not everything action needs a deep-seated psychological basis to exist. It’s possible that Priest’s piece was years of psychic turmoil erupting in one ill-advised but cathartic squeal, but it’s also possible and I would suggest probably more likely Priest simply looked at the list, went “the fuck?” and then availed himself of a keyboard. It’s not as if that never happens, you know. Is not the Internet mostly ill-advised spouting, punctuated by pictures of cats?
Speaking as a professional critic and commentator on the creative arts, I do understand the critical impulse to delve deeper, since sometimes there is something there, and no matter what its makes us look smart (or at least clever) to outside observers. But speaking as someone who has seen critical exegesis of his work (and its motivations) go hilariously wrong because of earnest overthinking, I can tell you that Occam’s Razor shaves writers, too. The simplest explanations aren’t always the best ones, because humans are in fact tricky monkeys. But simplest explanations are still the best place to start from. If they don’t work, then you can dig down. But they work quite a lot of the time.
The simplest explanation here? Christopher Priest doesn’t like the slate, feels qualified to say so, and isn’t particularly worried about the blowback. Off he goes. Works for me.
The Movie Junkies site,which featured scads of movie reviews plagiarized from other movie critics, is at least temporarily down; right now if you go there you get the notice you see above, “Maintenance Mode,” apparently being a polite, or at least shorter, version of the more accurate description “Oh CRAP I Have So Much Plagiarized Material Here That I Can’t Get Rid of It All In One Panicked Burst Mode.” Given that the site appeared so rife with plagiarism that it might be more efficient to ask which reviews weren’t cut and pasted from elsewhere, the site might be down for a while. The Movie Junkies’ Twitter feed is also down; so is its Facebook page.
Film writer Eric D. Snider writes about his own interaction with The Movie Junkies’ proprietor Michele Schalin, in which Ms. Schalin attempts to call a wholesale plagiarism of one of his reviews an “error,” rewrites the review so it still contains substantial amounts of plagiarized material, and then when he calls her on it, gets snippy with him and suggests that just because she just happens to use words in sentences almost exactly as he has, it doesn’t mean it’s actually plagiarism. This assertion, may I suggest, works better when one hasn’t already been caught plagiarizing. Elsewhere, Ms. Schalin attempted the Griggs Maneuver, i.e., blaming the problem on “staff”. Oh, well, staff. We all know how that is. Good help is hard to find.
In the real world, Ms. Schalin and The Movie Junkies multiply plagiarizing multiple writers was definitely an error, but, I rather strongly suspect, not in the way Ms. Schalin was trying to suggest. Her use of “error” implied that this plagiarism was all a mistake and misunderstanding, whoops, let’s fix that. It’s evident, however, that the error here was having a Web site whose business model was predicated on taking the work other people did without their permission and passing it off as one’s own. There’s a lot of ground between the first definition of “error” and the second.
Hopefully Ms. Schalin has learned something from this, other than “The Internet is mean when you plagiarize other people’s work.” Well, yes. Yes, it is. But there’s a reason for that, you know. Figure out why that is, Ms. Schalin, and you’ll be better off.
When Helen Lowe sat down to write The Gathering of the Lost, she thought she knew what the big idea of the books was going to be. But as it turned out, the book had other plans for her, and for the concept that ended up motivating many of the events of the book. What happens when a book has a mind — and a big idea — of its own? Lowe explains.
Usually when I begin to write, I do so with a very clear notion of the “big idea”—what a story’s really all about. At other times it is only when I read through the finished manuscript that I realize there is an idea present that’s been percolating in the story all along, even if I didn’t set out to consciously write about it.
This latter situation is what happened for me with The Gathering of the Lost, book two of The Wall of Night series.
Seventeen months ago, John very kindly allowed me to write a first Big Idea post for the initial book in the series, The Heir of Night. In that post I talked about my love for classic epic fantasy, but also about my desire to explore how conflicts between good and evil really play out, both within individuals and at a wider societal level—especially when one of those societies perceives itself as defending good and yet has a darkly chequered history.
“And that,” I thought then, “is very much the whole ‘big idea’ done and dusted, as obviously the second book, The Gathering of the Lost, will simply expand on the original theme.” And in fact that is a large part of what this book does. But when I finally read through the completed manuscript, I realized that the new story also has its own, distinct “big idea.”
The Gathering of the Lost is a book about friendship.
The Heir of Night raised questions about ties of honor and loyalty within a rigidly monocultural society. The Gathering of the Lost forces the central protagonists in particular, Malian and Kalan, to ask and answer questions of loyalty and responsibility to each other, but also about their obligations to those who stand outside their own culture’s narrow bounds. And other central characters, such as the heralds, Tarathan and Jehane Mor, and the minstrel, Haimyr, who have been brought together by events into a “band of brothers” find those ties tested by changing circumstances and the reassertion of old allegiances and duties.
Ultimately, The Gathering of the Lost is also a story about responsibility, in terms of which I can do no better than to use the words of my lead editor, Kate Nintzel: “… to each other, to the world in which we live, to our families, whether of blood or friendship.”
What fascinates me in all this is how a big idea can work itself into a story so invisibly—but no matter how fantastic the world, I always strive to keep the characters emotionally real. And this is big epic as well, a story dealing with the sweep of large events—and there is nowhere, history would suggest, that such events bite more keenly than on the personal relationships between people, especially when those relationships are tested by religious, cultural and political difference. So perhaps it is not so surprising that The Gathering of the Lost should have become a story where the big idea is friendship.
Now don’t get me wrong—as well as the sweep of epic fantasy, I love stories that are adventurous and swashbuckling and magical, so The Gathering of the Lost is still very much a magical, swashbuckling and adventurous tale. But running beneath that torrent of danger and power, very much like a secret river, is a story about friendship: its tenacity but also its fragility, as well as its potential—sometimes, if the fates are kind—to transcend the divides of creed, ambition and self-interest.
“Mr. Priest’s contribution is the first this year in what is sure to be a lot of barking at clouds concerning science fiction award nomination slates, all of which will essentially boil down to ‘my tastes are different than yours, and your tastes are wrong.’ This format of complaint will no doubt pick up considerably, as it does on an annual basis, regardless of what is nominated, when the Hugo slate is announced in a couple of weeks.
“That said, as a representative of the format, it’s pretty good: Mr. Priest writes it with an engaging amount of piss and vinegar, varies his tone from target to target (more in sorrow than in anger for Mr. Mieville, blithe condescension for Mr. Stross, outright contempt for Ms. Tepper), and to his credit, offers viable suggestions for an alternative slate, at least one of which, Mr. Tidhar’s Osama, is in my opinion eminently slate-worthy. So for connoisseurs of the form, this is top-shelf stuff, much better than the usual entitled bleating of the tendentiously aggrieved.
“Whether Mr. Priest is right in his cane-shaking is, of course, a matter of personal taste. But with a piece like this, that’s always the case.”
On my end of things, I suspect Mr. Priest and I have different tastes, as I liked Rule 34, have been a Tepper fan of long standing, and believe that if Embassytown is China Mieville underachieving, we should all slack as well as he. But of course that’s my point, and in any event it’s a rare nomination slate for any literary award that does not have someone railing against it as a parade of mediocrities, or worse.
Over at his blog, critic Damien Walter offers a psychological portrait of Mr. Priest to explain his invective regarding the Clarke list. I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mr. Walter’s mind modeling, knowing neither him nor Mr. Priest, but in a general sense I don’t think we have to reach that far into Mr. Priest’s psyche for why he’s had his eruption. Sometimes, one is just cranky about a list of works for which one has little enthusiasm or connection, which purports to exemplify the best of one’s field.
At the end of his rant, Mr. Priest inevitably does what it seems most people who write these sorts of things inevitably do, which is to blame other people for not having their personal tastes. This is where he loses the plot. As I’ve noted before, there’s a difference between saying “This is not what I would have done” and “Why did you do this? You suck.” The first is a perfectly valid thing to say; the second assumes the primacy of one’s personal opinion over everyone else’s. Mr. Priest may feel well qualified to assert such a thing, but no one else is obliged to agree with him. “Incompetent” does not actually mean “valuing the works I do not.”
What should Mr. Priest’s punishment be? Quite obviously, to head up next year’s Clarke Award jury. I would wish him joy in the task.
Update: Charlie Stross, whom Mr. Priest referred to as an “Internet puppy,” is making t-shirts, featuring the image at the top of the entry, made by his mighty spouse Feòrag NicBhrìde. I’m totally getting one.
I mean, aside from her bow, which she is in fact pretty good at. This thing is for close work, should it come to that. In the meantime it can used for any construction work we have around the house, but come on. We know it’s mostly for dealing with the undead.
What is shocking about Shame is the male vulnerability, the male weakness, the abject male misery we see onscreen. Movies simply don’t do this. Movies protect the male ego, even to the point of — at least in the United States, thanks to the MPAA’s retrograde puritanism — decreeing that male nudity is much more scandalous and is to be treated much more seriously than female nudity, which may be treated casually. (A penis? Onscreen?Why, men might feel inadequate! Unless said penis is somehow comically small. That’s okay! Male egos remain intact!) (Warning: Fassbender’s nudity may bruise some male egos.)
What is shocking about Shame is the male vulnerability, weakness and misery we see onscreen. Movies simply don’t show this. Movies protect the male ego, even to the point of decreeing that male nudity is much more scandalous and is to be treated much more seriously than female nudity, which may be treated casually. What you say? A penis onscreen? Why, men might feel inadequate! Unless the penis is somehow comically small. That’s okay! Male egos remain intact!) (Warning: Fassbender’s nudity may bruise some male egos.)
There’s no attribution to Maryann (or, one assumes, payment), although there is a copyright notice at The Movie Junkies. So there’s that irony.
There’s nothing new under the sun in epic fantasy, or so I’ve heard it said.
So when I was trying to come up with a Big Idea for an epic fantasy–a genre I’ve loved since before I wrote my first derivative plot coupon fantasy in fifth grade (it was deeply inspired by The Dark Crystal and Piers Anthony, but it had the best dragons ever–and I’m still stealing bits of my mad juvenile inventiveness and recycling them into other settings) it seemed to me that the obvious solution was to invent a different sun. Or maybe a whole slew of different suns.
So I did. Everybody gets their own sun! Or suns. And a set of skies to go with them.
Because the gods of this world are real, and the heavens–perforce–reflect their will.
It was important to me that this world have an economy. I wanted these books to question the too-easy monarchy “restore the king” plots that so often proliferate in our genre.
I wanted the fun and adventure of swords and sorcery, but I didn’t want to hew too closely to either the broad tropes of traditional heroic fantasy or the grittier perspective of the heirs of Fritz Leiber and Poul Anderson. Instead, I wanted a middle path–heroic, but not morally unexamined.
One of my best friends is a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. (It’s possible that I am, too–something like twenty percent of human beings alive today are, and my great-grandfather was a Cossack, a group that famously claims descent from the Golden Horde.) Her sons are my godsons, and as I considered settings, that coincidence–and the fact that have heard from friends of Asian and African descent over and over again how hard it is for them to find stories that acknowledge their heritage and cultures–influenced me.
There have always been exceptions, and this is changing, but too many fantasy worlds traditionally have not only failed to step outside of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, but don’t question the Eurocentric view of world history so many English speakers (I can’t say “the majority,” because I believe at last check India has more English speakers than most of the rest of the world) are given in grammar school. We speak of Alexander the Great, after all–and the terrifying Mongol Hordes. But the roles of Alexander and of Genghis Khan in history are not actually so very different.
Both men were conquerors. The difference in perspective–who is the hero and who is the scourge–has a great deal to do with cultural observer bias.
So I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.
The intersection of those influences was the inception of the world of the Eternal Sky, of which Range of Ghosts is the first book. I knew I wanted a world of vast scope and deep history, inspired by the multicultural swords-and-sorcery milieu of classic genre works like the Conan cycle–but I hope with a bit less unexamined colonial baggage. And I knew I wanted to completely excise the usual Western European fantasy backdrops–so this is a world where the Prague-equivalent is a coastal city and Western Europe just doesn’t exist at all. No Greece, no Rome.
But a complex system of empires, khanates, caliphates, principalities–and trade routes dominates the cultural landscape.
The Hunger Games is a smash.John Carter is a flop. Is there anything these two films can teach us about how science fiction films can and should be made and marketed? Over at FilmCritic.com, I offer up five lessons we’ve learned from these films. They aren’t the only five lessons. But they’re the ones I think stand out. Go get schooled, my friends.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America would like to award Clarence Howard ‘Bud’ Webster the 2012 Service to SFWAAward for his outstanding work on behalf of the organization.
Bud has had a long history in the science fiction and fantasy community. He is a contributing editor and columnist for the SFWA Bulletin, the poetry editor of Black Gate Magazine, and well-known for the Bubba Pritchert series, published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. However, it is his work with the Estate Project that SFWA particularly wishes to acknowledge with this award.
Alternate histories are popular, and they’re fun to write. But for the author of such works, there is the occupational hazard of reimagining the world in a way it’s been reimagined before — discovering that you’re not the trailblazer you thought you might be. When Anne Lyle sought to have Europeans discover the New World in her novel The Alchemist of Souls, she knew she was traveling a route others had gone down before. How did she diverge from their beaten path? I’ll let her tell you.
What if European explorers hadn’t succeeded in conquering the New World? What if they, not the Native Americans, were the ones facing an enemy they didn’t understand, an enemy they were ill-equipped to fight? That, in a nutshell, is the Big Idea behind The Alchemist of Souls, the first volume in my fantasy trilogy “Night’s Masque.” The roots lie farther back, however.
I’ve been reading fantasy for over three decades, and science fiction even longer than that. I’ve read a good many of the classics and a lot of their imitators, and inevitably seen fresh ideas turn into tired clichés. When I turned to writing my own fiction, one that particularly exercised my mind was the ubiquity of the gunpowder-less medieval world. I understand the reason behind its popularity – swords and castles are cool! – but I didn’t feel inspired to follow that well-trodden path. The historical eras that most interest me are the ones between the high Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution: the Wars of the Roses, the English Renaissance, the Age of Reason. Eras when the development of science and technology started to accelerate and clash with old superstitions; eras, perhaps, on the boundary between fantasy and science fiction.
As most fans will acknowledge, fantasy and science fiction aren’t so much two separate genres as two ends of a spectrum, which is why they get grouped together on the shelves of most bookstores. Everyone has their favourite subgenre, but at the same time we are united by our love of the otherworldly. I’m probably pretty typical of a genre fan, in that I am a scientist at heart (I have a degree in zoology) but I also love history and languages and all the stuff that tends to feature prominently in fantasy. So it was perhaps inevitable that my fantasy fiction would be inspired by a work of popular science: Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond.
Diamond’s thesis is simple and attractive: the historical dominance of Eurasian cultures over Native American ones comes down to geographical accident. The former are based on a continent with a pronounced east-west axis, the latter on one oriented north-south. But so what? Why would geography have such a profound effect on technology? Diamond points out that Eurasian civilisations cluster along the temperate zone, which means that crops native to one region can be traded with a distant neighbour and still thrive. In the Americas, by contrast, a crop from tropical central America is likely to fail in cooler northern climes, and vice versa. This makes it difficult for cultures to expand into neighbouring territories and exchange ideas, leading to insularity and stagnation. Thus an accident of geography enabled greater technological progress and more urbanisation in Europe relative to the New World. The Native Americans never stood a chance.
But what if they had? What if the conquistadors had been unable to make headway for some reason? What would happen to Europe then?
I considered taking a traditional science-fictional approach; find some way to boost technological advancement in the Americas (perhaps through the intervention of aliens?) so that they could fight off Cortés et al. But I saw two problems with that:
1) It would involve major changes to Native American cultures, something that as an English writer I was not terribly comfortable with. It felt disrespectful to use cultures that had been oppressed and wiped out by my kin as world-building fodder for my fiction.
2) It still involved taking a Western approach to the problem: solving the confrontation through technology and fire power. What interested me about the historical situation was not so much that Europeans were able to wipe out the natives with muskets and smallpox, than that their culture and mindset was so different from that of the natives as to make their strategies difficult to counter.
My solution was thus to create a buffer between the Europeans and the Native Americans, one that could halt the initial incursions and eventually turn the tables on the would-be conquerors. That buffer is the skraylings.
The skraylings are a sentient species that evolved in parallel with humans, but whereas we arose in Africa, the skraylings are native to the Americas. They were never as numerous as humans, and their numbers dropped even lower during the megafauna extinctions of around 14000 BCE, and so when humans began arriving in North America in large numbers via the Bering Straits, the skraylings retreated east and south. As the humans spread and settled most of the continent, the two species were forced to interact – mostly, but not always, peaceably. In the tenth century CE, the skraylings encountered Viking explorers and copied their ships, using them to extend their nomadic wanderings and increasingly trade with human civilisations along the eastern seaboard of North America and down into South America.
Through interacting with other cultures, the skraylings have become more technologically advanced than their neighbours, albeit not in the same way as Europe. Their strengths lie in chemistry and pharmacology, so they are much more advanced than the Europeans in some areas and way behind in others. Most significantly, their exploitation and exploration of native pharmaceuticals has awoken mental powers beyond the comprehension of sixteenth-century Christians.
Hence by the time Columbus, Cabot and other European explorers rediscover the New World, the eastern coast of the Americas is effectively under the protection of the skraylings. Being evolved from a branch of the order Carnivora rather than primates, they are – like cats and dogs – immune to many of our diseases, whilst their “witchcraft” has sent the superstitious Europeans fleeing home in terror for their souls. But what happens when such creatures decide to follow the explorers back across the Atlantic? That was the story I decided to follow in Night’s Masque. I hope you’ll join me.
Here’s Papa Fuzzy, proudly showing off the paperback edition of Fuzzy Nation, which is available here in the US and Canada now now now now. You can tell he’s mightily pleased that book is now available in a compact, travel-friendly yet physical format.
And if you pick up the paperback, there’s something special at the back: An excerpt from Redshirts! What’s not to like about that? Nothing, that’s what.
For those of you with electronic preferences, I’ll note that the Kindle/Nook edition prices now reflect the paperback pricing.
In the UK? The paperback edition comes out there May 14.