The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.

What Do Artists Owe to Their Fans?

Some artists create for the sheer joy of it, to make themselves happy, without any intention of sharing their creations with the wider world. I’ve talked to writers who do that – they write a story, polish it like you would for publishing, then set it aside and start another. Most of us, however, plan to release our creations on an unsuspecting public. Writers want readers. Musicians want listeners. Actors want audiences, either in person or otherwise.

In short, we want fans.

Which sets up a weird sort of feedback loop between artists and their fans. Fans are attracted to what an artist has already done, but the artist may want to move on and do new things. Does the artist owe anything to those fans? If millions of people buy your first book or record, do you owe them a duty to continue making things they like?

I don’t think so and I hope not, but I’m seeing that kind of entitlement playing out now that Steven Wilson’s new solo album, The Future Bites has dropped.

Wilson came to prominence as the leader of Porcupine Tree, a band that wasn’t even a band at all in the beginning (just Wilson and his studio toys), but slowly built a good following in progressive rock and related circles. They hit a major turning point in 2002 with In Absentia, when the band leaned hard into metal influences (to give you some idea, Wilson produced several albums by Swedish metal band Opeth and has a side project with Opeth’s main man called Storm Corrosion).

While Porcupine Tree was gaining momentum, Wilson had his musical hands in a lot of other areas outside the prog world. His collaboration with Tim Bowness, No-Man, explores melancholy pop and electronic influences. Blackfield, a collaboration with Aviv Geffen, works in more direct pop/rock songwriter mode. Then there’s Bass Communion, which is all about expansive electronic drones and noise. And that’s not to mention all of the remix work Wilson’s done for classic albums by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and others.

It was not surprising, then, that since Wilson shuttered Porcupine Tree and struck out as a solo artist that his output there has covered a lot of ground. Aside from most of his first solo album, Insrugentes, however, it has been fairly rooted in the prog/rock world, stuff his fans from Porcupine Tree could sink their teeth into. Building on that fan base, he has wound up as a pretty successful solo artist.

Things started to change, a bit, with his last album, To The Bone. By his own admission it was inspired a lot by the artier pop of an earlier era, folks like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. The album sounds very much like you’d expect from Wilson, but a little sleeker, and little friendlier. There was even a straight up joyous pop song complete with Bollywood dancers!

At the time, some fans grumbled. He was selling out. He was turning his back on “real” music for more ephemeral pop success. Those criticisms were accentuated by The Future Bites, which leans hard into electronic music and that kind of moody, atmospheric pop. Stuff like this:

To me it still sounds very much like Steven Wilson – his melodic sense, his production details – but it’s not The Raven That Refused to Sing. I happen to dig the sort of stuff he’s working with here, although I’m not as energized by his take on it as I have been by others. I doubt I’ll be listening to The Future Bites more than his earlier work.

Which is fine. Slavish devotion to an artist isn’t a whole lot of fun (to quote another favorite of mine, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son”). It’s certainly no worse, though, than people who take it as a personal insult if their favorite artist changes course and starts making a different kind of music.  I mean, it’s one thing to say, “hey, this isn’t for me” and walk away. It’s entirely another thing to go online and rant about what a talentless hack somebody has now become. This musician isn’t trying to hurt you, man.

Is Wilson aware of this backlash? I’m sure. Does he care? Not a whit. As he explained in a recent interview with Bob Lefsetz:

The only thing I think about when I’m making new music is just getting myself excited about it. That’s all I think about. I’ve had this question come up in various different forms, ‘do you think about your fans when you’re making music?’ and I really don’t. And it’s an incredibly selfish way to go about your career, but I think it’s what an artist is.

Frank Zappa said something similar, once (I’m paraphrasing), that he made music for his own amusement and if others want to come along for the ride, that’s great. I think that’s about right. Artists should be aware of how their work is going over with their fans, but catering to them can be dangerous and lead to stagnation.

To bring this around to writing, the question of reader expectations comes up most often with regard to George R.R. Martin and his quest to finish the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.  It’s been 10 years since the last book – what’s the fucking hold up? At one point, Neil Gaiman produced the ultimate response to this kind of complaint, from a reader who asked if it was “unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down”:

Yes, it’s unrealistic of you to think George is ‘letting you down’.

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.

Again, I think this is about right. Fans, presumably, are attracted to the work of artists that they’ve slaved over and only let go into the world when they were right. They don’t do half measures and they follow their muse. Don’t you want whatever else they produce to come with such loving care? So, in the end, what do artists owe their fans? To continue to be the artists that made fans fall in love with them in the first place. That doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over. It means following tangents and muses and keeping themselves entertained, since that’s what led to the art you came to love in the first place. Even if it means honking some people off.

A Little Proof of Concept

It seems like such a long time ago – but only December 2019 – that I announced a National Novel Writing Month “win” with Widows of the Empire, the second book in the Unari Empire Trilogy. Under normal circumstances, that might have meant the book would have been finished and released in 2020.

Yet, if anything, 2020 could hardly be described as “normal.”

For whatever, be it pandemic fatigue/ennui or just the fact that this book has been kind of a bear, the progress on Widows has been slower than I’d hoped. Still, it’s with beta readers and I’m ready to do a final edit when I hear back from them. Until then, I wanted to provide a little proof that this book is a real thing, not just residing in my noggin.

Some people create covers, or have the commissioned, before they even start writing a book. I don’t know how they pulled that off. I suppose it’s easy enough to change things if you have the talent to do your own covers (I really do not), but I can’t imagine at least having a first draft complete and knowing how everything winds up before getting to work on a cover.

So, while Widows of the Empire is not yet in its final final form, I can at least go ahead and share this with you:

Given the title, it’s no surprise to find Lady Belwyn on the cover of this one (Aton, the finder of lost things and other main character for the trilogy, is on the first one).

As usual, this is the work of the fine folks at Deranged Doctor Designs. Coming soon to a shelf near you!

When “It’s Fantasy” Isn’t Good Enough

A few weeks ago I was extolling the freedom that fantasy as a genre provides – the answer to almost any “can I do this?” question is “it depends,” so long as you can make it work. That said, you do still have to make it work and some things are beyond the ability of fantasy to change. This was driven home over the holidays watching Wonder Woman 1984.

I don’t normally do this, but the rest of this post contains big spoilers for WW84. If you want to go into it fresh and not knowing what’s going on, bookmark this and come back later. Otherwise, let’s press on . . .

The main plot-driving MacGuffin in WW84 is an ancient stone that grants the bearer any wish. It’s a classic fantasy/horror trope (think the monkey’s paw) and fits well within your basic superhero universe. Two things happen with this trope that are great examples of what “hey, it’s fantasy” can’t whitewash bad writing.

The first is how the MacGuffin is used to bring back Diana’s love interest from the first movie (that happened decades before, remember), Steve Trevor. That she wishes him back is fine – you’d have thought maybe she’d moved on in the ensuing years, but it’s believable – but they way they do it is so odd that it causes problems. Rather than have Trevor just materialize in 1984 D.C., he winds up taking over the body of a person who’s already there, to the point that only Diana actually sees him as Trevor.

This way of doing it raises all sorts of issues, both practical and moral. The guy Trevor takes over presumably has a life – a job, family, maybe a significant other – how do they play into this? Is he missed at all? Are there things he normally has to do in a day that aren’t getting done, causing problems? Beyond those complications are serious questions about consent and what not, given that Diana and Trevor sleep together and Trevor puts this guy’s body at risk while chasing bad guys. What would have happened if he died or was seriously injured? All and all, it’s pretty fucked up.

All this is rich fodder for the movie to explore, but it doesn’t even nod at it. This is fantasy done poorly. There’s nothing that says you can’t have someone come back from the dead like this, but what are the consequences? If you don’t want to explore the consequences, then why bring him back in a way that creates so many questions? It’s sloppy and not very thoughtfully done.

An aside on the topic of Trevor – it annoyed me greatly that he’s overwhelmed by seeing an escalator and a subway, both of which existed during his lifetime, but he has no trouble whatsoever jumping into a (conveniently unlocked, unguarded, and fully fueled) jet and flying it to the other side of the planet. Hey, he was a World War I pilot, right? Planes hadn’t changed in six decades! He can be either a wide-eyed dope or a man ahead of his time, but not both.

WW84 goes big when the bad guy basically allows people all over the world to tap into the wish-making power. This causes lots of problems and leads to the film’s biggest issue, in my book. To save the day, either the MacGuffin has to be destroyed (which it sort of already has) or everyone who was granted a wish needs to recant it. This works well for Diana’s arc – she has to let go of Trevor – but simply doesn’t work as the big finale. Why?

20-Fucking-20, that’s why. Actually, it’s not even that. I’ll show my cards, here, and admit that I generally loathe the “manufacture a happy ending by believing hard enough” trope, so I would not be on board with the way WW84 ends, anyway. But after a year full of selfish political idiots who buck at the idea of wearing a mask to help contain a global pandemic, the idea that everyone who made a wish would take it back for the greater good is just laughable. It doesn’t help that lots of the wish examples we see in the movie are fairly petty and nasty. These people would suddenly do the right thing?

What does this have to do with writing fantasy? With some fantasy the world you’re dealing with isn’t our own, even hugely modified. The world of The Dark Crystal does not include human beings, for instance. Neither does The Water Road, for that matter. But if your fantasy is set in our world – with regular people, for the most part – then you can’t just hand-waive issues with them with the notice that “it’s fantasy.” Human beings have to behave like human beings, at least to the extent they haven’t been magically made something else. See also, this scene from Dogma. That the world can be saved just by everybody being nice for a change just doesn’t work.

So, there, is perhaps a pair of caveats to my prior advice on how you can use fantasy to do pretty much anything. First, you have to think about the consequences of your fantastic world. Second, humans still have to behave like actual human beings. Still leaves a lot of room to have fun, right?

The Correct Answer Is Always “It Depends”

Law school is all about answering questions – usually when randomly questioned by a professor in front of the entire class. It can be intimidating, to say the least. So, imagine my relief/horror when one of my first-year professors explained that the correct answer to any legal question is “it depends.”

That’s not a cop out, at least for actual live legal issues (dumb stuff like this, not so much), since they turn on factual details unique to particular cases and the application of established law that is almost, but not quite, determinative. Angels may dance on the head of a pin, but lawyers play the tune.

Turns out that writing fantasy is a lot like that.

I’ve been thinking of “it depends” a lot in the discussions I see on one of the fantasy writers groups I’m on at Facebook. It’s a very helpful group of people, tightly moderated to keep it from being flooded with “buy my book!” posts. Generally, people ask good questions about writing problems, publishing options, and that kind of thing.

Lately, however, there’s been a few questions that have really rubbed me the wrong way. Not because they’re bad questions in general, but they’re odd questions to ask when you’re writing fantasy. Here’s an example:

Now, I’ve written before about research in fantasy and how helpful it can be and wondering about how border controls have worked through history is right in line with that advice. History is stranger than you might imagine and can provide great fodder for world building. The problem I have is the word “accurate.” After all, what does “accurate” mean when you’re writing fantasy? Not much. Hence, my bottom line advice:

Similarly, someone asked a question about a fundamental background piece of their world:

And, likewise, my answer:

But the one that really got me, and made me want to throw things across the room, was this one:

I didn’t answer this one, as I feared I’d be entirely too snarky. The question is just . . . odd. “Immortals” are not real. Everyone, and everything, dies. The only limit on an immortal character in a story – a classic trope for a reason – is (to quote Frank Zappa) “the imagination of the imaginer.” What possible answer could there be to a question like “can immortals have children?” Why the fuck not? Or, if you want it to be so, why not that instead?

All of this is to say that the great thing about fantasy – what really distinguishes it from its cousin science fiction – is that there are literally no limits. Whatever universe you build should make sense internally and not seem like a giant game of world building Calvinball (unless that’s the point!), but outside of that, go nuts! You don’t need for it to follow the real world or be a logical extrapolation of reality. That’s the entire point and joy of writing fantasy – the rules are yours to make.

So, next time someone asks whether they can do something particular in their fantasy story, remember there are no “yes” or “no” answers – as with the law, the right answer is always “it depends.”

Can’t Talk – Writing

Hey, gang. Guess what time of year it is?

I mean, yeah, there’s an election that’s probably not going to be over with for a while, but beyond that, it’s November which means . . .

It’s National Novel Writing Month!

That’s when folks, including yours truly, take the month of November to focus on writing the first draft of a novel – well, at least 50,000 words of it. I’ve done this several times and it’s a great way to jump start a new project. So, this year, I’m going to be writing the third book in the Unari Empire trilogy, Heroes of the Empire (yes, yes, I know, Widows of the Empire isn’t out yet – it’s with beta readers, so it is coming), thus bringing the whole thing to a thrilling (?) conclusion.

Which means – it’s blog silence for me for the rest of the month (at the least). Stay safe and I’ll see you on the other side.

“Shift Change” – A Short Story

“Shift Change” – A Short Story

Finally! Something about 2020 that feels normal. As he’s done in years past, author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. It’s always been fun, so I was happy to chip in another entry. You can read my prior Halloween short story here, as well as my two prior 100-word entries here and here. And, as always, head over to Eric’s place to check out stories from all the other folks.

Now, without ado – “Shift Change”


Vuzzaz sat at the end of the hall of the Amalgamated Union of Transdimensional Frighteners, Demons, and Purveyors of Dread building and watched the shift change turnover. He pretended to be engrossed in paperwork, but really he was just trying to get comfortable in his chair, watching beings. It was one of those hard plastic things designed to make you uncomfortable, but at least this one had an opening in the back so he didn’t have to sit on his tail. It swished back and forth slowly behind him.

He’d chosen this location carefully, after years of trial and error. It was far enough away that he couldn’t really overhear what anyone else was saying, but not so far away as to draw notice. Kothol demons aren’t known for keen hearing, anyway, but not every monster knew that. From here he could blend in and watch the low-slung shoulders, the puffy eyes, and other indicia of feelings even if he couldn’t hear the words.

The beings from the A shift shuffled out of the shift room, heads and tentacles down, with an air of defeat. One big red demon with four arms and a pair of swooping black horns was actually crying. Behind him, Munol, Vuzzaz’s counterpart for the A shift, put a tentacle on his shoulder in an effort at consolation. It clearly wasn’t working, leading Munol to turn and lock eye stalks with Vuzzaz.

As the A shift slid down the corridor and the B shift started to trickle in, Munol squeaked down toward Vuzzaz, his pungent slime trail dripping through the grated floor.

“Is it really that bad?” Vuzzaz asked.

 Munol did the closest thing to a shrug a being with no shoulders and six flopping tentacles could. “I’ve never seen it like this. You have bad days, we all have bad days, but you don’t lose the love for the work.”

Vuzzaz looked through Munol as the rest of his shift shuffled in. “It can’t go on like this.”

“What are you going to do?” Munol’s dozen eyes all blinked at once.

Vuzzaz stood. “Go find every old timer you can find. I don’t care what they’re doing or how far up the chain they are. Tell them to come to the shift room as soon as they can.” As Munol began to ooze away, Vuzzaz grabbed a tentacle. “I mean every one.”

As Munol slithered down the hallway behind him, Vuzzaz watched as the stragglers of his shift filed into the room. Last, as always, was Bagrozoth, who looked like a pale three-foot-tall sprite or fairy, until her performance began and she tripled in size and turned coal black.

“Sorry, boss,” she said, voice squeaking.

“Get in there,” Vuzzaz said, following her in and closing the door.

The shift room was like a classroom that had seen better days. There was a lectern at the front from which Vuzzaz or his colleagues could speak to their charges. The members of the shift itself – normally an even dozen but Zongriruk was out sick today – sat in folding chairs barely big enough to hold most of them. There was room for, maybe, three or four beings to come and stand along the wall near the door.

The din of conversation among the shift quieted when Vuzzaz stepped behind the lectern. He took a deep breath, even puffing up his auxiliary swim bladder for effect. The room was very quiet for a long while.

“I understand,” Vuzzaz finally said, “that things are hard out there. But that is no excuse for not trying to do the best job we can. The Earth relies on us.”

“Then maybe the humans should cut us some slack.” It was Var’ath, a Kosmar demon who haunted dreams. “It’s a nightmare down there, even before I clock in.”

A rumble of agreement from their coworkers, including the low rumble that meant the mountain of rock named Billy, showed that they shared their opinion.

Vuzzaz held up his hands to quiet the crowd. “Tough times come and go when you’re an eternal purveyor of dread. Things will get better.”

“When?” Mizrolas stood up. She was a slender reed of a demon, pulsing blue green with three piercing yellow eyes and a mouthful of sharp, dagger-like teeth. “I was sneaking up on a girl, a teenager, someone I should scare the pants right off of. What’s she reading about on her phone? This pandemic that’s closing cities down, killing hundreds of thousands, impoverishing millions. How am I supposed to compete with that?”

Numerous others chimed in with nods of heads, stalks, or whatever appendage they had handy.

“I was nestled in the corner of a TV room,” said Jegexath, who for the moment had taken the form of a humanoid made entirely of chimney smoke, “just waiting for the right moment to seep out over the floor and imbue the family with dread. Do you know what they start talking about on TV?”

“Tell us!” cried out Gorkazod, like they were in their unholy church.

“Murder hornets!” Jegexath said.

Another dissonant din erupted from the room as some of the others called out the parade of horribles they had heard about, too.

“Wild fires!,” someone called out. “Australia was literally on fire!”

Another added, “so many hurricanes they’re running out of names!”

“Shortages of toilet paper! And yeast!”

They were so riled up that they didn’t even notice when Munol opened the door and walked in, along with one other old timer. Vuzzaz had hoped for more, but he’d have to work with what he had.

Vuzzaz put up his hands again, but with limited effect. “Now, now, let’s settle down.” That didn’t have much effect either. He didn’t want to go harder, but they were short on time and he had a point to make.

“KNOCK IT OFF!” Vuzzaz roared, eyes turning a shade of flaming orange while his knuckles went black as he clutched the lectern.

That quieted the crowd.

Vuzzaz took a few deep breaths to regain his composure. “Thank you. As I was saying, I know this year has been harder than most, but it’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before.” He looked to Gorkazod, a Muisto with a knack for dates and names. “When did I start trying to scare people?”

Its eyes rolled into its head for a second, then it answered, “1918.”

“That’s right. 1918.” Vuzzaz nodded, waiting to see if the date sank in. These young demons were so ignorant of history. “I first went to work while the Earth was convulsed in a terrible war, upon which a pandemic more deadly than the current one developed. Do you think I complained? No. I put my head down and did the job, because it needed to be done.”

“Due respect,” Gorkazod said, sheepishly raising a tentacle, “people were different then. They didn’t have all the horrors of the world beamed into their homes 24 hours a day.”

Silent nods greeted this, but at least they all kept quiet this time.

Vuzzaz hung his head, then turned to Munol. “Would you like to tell them when you first started?”

“1349,” it said, surveying the room. “That mean anything to anyone here?”

A silence fell over the room, punctuated only by the rolling gurgle that Xanuth did when he got nervous and couldn’t control his fluid sacs.

“The Black Death,” Vuzzaz said. “Killed half of Europe. People thought they were living in the last days, but did that keep Munol from doing his job?”

“You know it didn’t,” Munol said, folding his tentacles defiantly.

Sogthoz was just starting to explain his first years working during the era of the Mongol hordes when the door opened and Rilgaxoth walked into the room. Everyone froze – Sogthoz even stopped at mid sentence – when the boss entered. It took a moment for the shift to remember protocol before they leapt to their appropriate appendages.

Vuzzaz did his best to conceal a grin and made a mental note to buy Munol a couple of buckets of fish guts later.

“Good morning, First Supervisor,” Vuzzaz said, bowing slightly.

“Deputy,” Rilgaxoth said, with barely a notice. “Carry on.”

It took a moment for Sogthoz to get back up to speed, and Vuzzaz felt as though his hearts really weren’t in it at this point. Still, he at least made clear to Rilgaxoth why he’d been summoned here.

Before Vuzzaz had to think of where to go next, Rilgaxoth stepped next to him at the lectern, sulfur clouds billowing in his wake. “May I?”

Vuzzaz stepped to the side without a word.

“August 26, 1883,” Rilgaxoth said, barking like he was upset he had to be here. “A volcano called Krakatoa erupted, blowing most of an island off Southern Asia to hell. Killed tens of thousands. Was felt thousands of miles away. Affected the climate of the planet Earth for weeks.”

Rilgaxoth snapped his fingers and an image appeared in the aether beside him – a strange, malformed man with his hands to his face, mouth agape, under a blood red sky. “That’s what Norway – fucking Norway – looked like because of this. People thought the world was coming to an end.” He paused to let that sink in.

“And I started my work here on August 28, 1883. The Earth looked like it was on fire and I got out there and did my job. Now,” he barked again, before saying almost in a whisper, “get out there and do yours.”

Vuzzaz wasn’t sure if he actually shot out the door or just vanished, but all that was left at the lectern was a slowly dissipating cloud of sulfur. Vuzzaz stepped up and waved some of the fumes away. “Any questions?”

Xanuth, who had to double over just to fit through the door, sheepishly raised his hand.

“Yes?” Vuzzaz asked, glancing at the clock on the wall. He needed to wrap this up.

“If the humans are already so scared,” Xanuth said, “if their world is so terrifying, then why do we have to frighten them even more?”

Only then did Vuzzaz grasp how bad things were. His charges weren’t lazy or trying to get out of doing a hard job. They’d forgotten what their job was.

“What we do is so important,” he said, “regardless of what reality the humans are dealing with. The truth is, if the humans ever really sat and considered their situation, they’d never be able to leave the homes. They lead brief lives of survival and desperation on a rock hurtling through space with no purpose, no plan.”

He took a deep breath. “Our . . . competitors,” he said with a shudder, “think the way to help them deal with their situation is to give them hope, false hope, that it all really means something, that there is some ultimate reward. We know better. We know that humans can do it, they can face their fears and improve their lot. That’s why we frighten. That’s why we scare. We give their minds a place to confront darkness and vanquish evil so that in their waking lives they can get on with the business of surviving. After all, Xanuth, what’s another jammed commute or a terrorist attack or even a global pandemic once they’ve dealt with you?”

“Fair point,” Xanuth said, shaking what passed for his head.

“You’re damned right!” Vuzzaz was starting to warm up now. “Same for you and you and you,” he went around the room looking every last one of them in the eye. “You all make that world a better place, by giving them a chance to confront some fears they can conquer!”

“Yeah!” A ragged chorus responded.

“So what are we going to do?” Vuzzaz asked stepping from behind the lectern.

“Scare people!”

“And are we going to do it the best we damned well can?”

“Yes!”

He yanked open the door. “Then let’s get going!”

The shift jumped to their feet and tentacles and stumps and started pouring through the door.

Vuzzaz waited until they were all out and striding down the hall with purpose.

“Hey, all of you!”

They turned at his call.

“Let’s be scary out there, all right?”

They nodded, whooped and gave each other high regards in various numerals. Before Vuzzaz knew it, they were out the door.

Munol was standing just behind him. “Good speech. I’ll have to remember that next time.”

“Won’t work next time,” Vuzzaz said. “Sad fact is, if that world down there doesn’t start to improve, our jobs are going to suck for the foreseeable future. I think I owe you some fish heads.” Munol licked his lips. All five of them.


HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

On Changing the World

There are generally two kinds of speculative fiction in terms of where those stories take place. One kind takes place in a world that is wholly divorced from our own. In fantasy that means the typical kind of second world story (like, say, The Water Road), but it applies to a lot of science fiction, too. Even if a sci-fi story is told in our reality, if it does so hundreds of years in the future it’s hardly “our world” it’s taking place in.

The second type, of course, takes place in what is basically our current world and universe – at the very least, it looks like what we think our world looks like (before The Year of the Plague, at any rate). Think urban fantasy or any of the numerous examples of near-future sci-fi that dot our pop culture landscape. There’s a particular issue with this, however, something that pops up more often in fantasy and something I first thought about because of a bunch of law professors.

The Volokh Conspiracy is a blog collective of most libertarian law profs and scholars. A few of them are also sci-fi/fantasy geeks, and so talk about that occasionally in and among lengthy posts on the Fourth Amendment and what have you. Several years ago, one blogger talked about having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy.

For those not familiar with the books (or the excellent SyFy series that was based on them), the elevator pitch is “Harry Potter, but at college.” With that in mind, the blogger highlights an important difference:

Like the Harry Potter series, Grossman’s world features a hidden society of magicians who wield enormous power yet are unknown to normal humans, whose history they have little effect on. In the Potter series, however, there is a very powerful wizard government that prevents wizards from revealing their powers to Muggles and trying to dominate the world. The magical authorities in Grossman’s world are a lot weaker. It therefore strains credulity to believe that powerful sorcerers have been around for centuries, yet have never revealed themselves to normal humans, seized political power, or had any impact on history.

In other words, the world of The Magicians is different from ours not just in the general sense that “magic exists,” but that people have been trained to use it for generations and are living among us and . . . so what? What major historical catastrophe was averted? What major political movement played out a different way? The answer is nothing, and it’s a bit disappointing.

As I said, the issue has stuck with me. When I read Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell I really loved the way that magic worked in that book – it was about knowledge, it was about books, not bloodlines and destinies and all that. The relationship between Strange and Norrell reminded me of the apprentice system that trained new lawyers before law schools rose to prominence in the 20th Century. My mind whirred and I came up with an idea for a world, like ours, where magicians organized into firms and did contract work for clients, just like lawyers do, complete with oversight by the state (my main character was going to be the equivalent of a State Bar investigator). “Okay, cool,” I thought, “but how is this world different from ours? After all, if magicians have been operating like this for decades, things should be different, yes?” I’ve foundered on the shoals of that question for years.

This issue raised its head again recently while I was reading N.K. Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

If you’ve read her short story collection you’ll recognize the basic idea from the story “The City Born Great,” which effectively serves as the prologue for this book. Essentially, for reasons that aren’t really all that clear, at some point certain cities are “born” into actual, living entities. Some of these births go well – London, Hong Kong, and Sao Paolo are all living breathing cities at this point – while others don’t make it, or don’t make it for very long – think Atlantis and Pompeii, and New Orleans is having troubles, too. In the book it’s New York City’s turn and its difficult birth in the prologue leads to the avatars of the city (one per borough and an additional one overall) fighting to keep it living.

The book overall is pretty good. Jemisin can lay words on the page like just about nobody else going right now and the individual scenes and chapters are great as set pieces. The broader plot doesn’t quite work, however, and the book winds up feeling like less than the sum of its parts (props here to the audiobook production which, aside from one minor quibble – longer pauses between scenes please! –is brilliant both in production and performance). One reason that’s true is that we’re not given any idea why any of this matters. I mean, there’s a villain to vanquish (in the next book, apparently – grumble, grumble) and a city to save, but as to what makes London and Hong Kong and Sao Paolo different from what New York was prior to its birth we never learn.

On the one hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean the main story suffers. After all, it’s likely that The City We Became didn’t address this issue because it wasn’t really applicable to the story Jemisin set out to tell. Still, one of the great pleasures of speculative fiction is digging into a fully developed world that’s not ours and glossing over such things can leave the experience a little hollow. In other words, if you’re writing modern-world fantasy, or near future sci-fi, it’s worth thinking about what’s going on in the world beyond the discrete story you’re telling. Maybe it’s not that important, but it introduces some interesting possibilities for how to deepen the world you’re building and provide some extra details for readers who are interested in sinking their mental teeth into that kind of thing.

Serious Fantasy Revisited

A few weeks ago I put up a post wondering whether people are inclined to treat science fiction more seriously than fantasy – that is, more likely to capably deal with “big” issues – to the point that it shades peoples’ perceptions of what is and isn’t fantasy. The very same day I posted that I came across another head-scratching example that I wanted to share.

Over at Tor, James Davis Nicoll posted an article about six books that “defy easy categorization” and straddle the sci-fi fantasy divide. I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with most of these (several went on my “to read” list). The one I was familiar with, however, left me shaking my head. That was Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

As Nicoll explains, Kindred is about a black woman from modern American (it was written in ??) who, inexplicably, is ripped back in time to before the Civil War where she is exposed, brutally and graphically, to the horrors of slavery. It’s a tough read, to be sure, but it’s brilliant. As for its classification, Nicoll writes:

But is it science fiction or fantasy? While I will grant that the physical mechanism is never explained, Dana is caught up in a stable time loop whose logic dictates much of what happens to her. . . .. Butler thought Kindred was fantasy, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to call it science fiction.

It really doesn’t, any more that it seems perfectly reasonable to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on any factual dispute at this point. As Nicoll says, there’s no explanation or mechanism given for the main character’s time travel. It just happens. It’s certainly not the result of some kind of deep tech or scientific advancement. It’s more one of those Twilight Zone setups you just accept as existing, without wondering why. That, to me, is the defining feature of fantasy – here’s a world that’s different than ours, accept it (or don’t) and move on.

So why try and turn Kindred into science fiction? Could it be that it deals with deeply serious and traumatic topics that most people don’t associate with fantasy? I don’t buy the “it’s magic, but it’s magic that follow rules, therefore it’s sci-fi” logic. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (to pick an example) has a very regimented, logical, magic system (it sometimes feel like video game controls), but nobody would call it sci-fi, would they? Fun as those are, they don’t deal with the kind of issues that Kindred does, however.

I shared my original post with a group of sci-fi and fantasy writers on Facebook and got some interesting answers (and some amusing ones – to the question of “is sci-fi more ‘serious’ than fantasy,” one person just answered “yes”). The one that really caught me was this one:

Now, being a prog fan, I should have come up with this one myself. Nonetheless, I think bringing musical genres into this might help shed some light on the question. I think this is something that happens to new fans of all musical genres, but I’ve seen it repeatedly with prog fans (I may have even gone through it a bit myself): Fan of a particular bands discovers they’re generally classified as “progressive rock,” finds out that there’s more groups out there with similar characteristics, falls madly in love with “prog” as a thing and . . . starts to expand its boundaries exponentially. In other words, they go from “prog = good” to “good = prog” and try to define every band they like into their new favorite genre. No matter how great XTC are (and they are great!), they aren’t a progressive rock band – nor do they need to be categorized as such!

Is the same thing going on here? Are people who are normally drawn to sci-fi reading fantasy novels and feeling the need to reclassify them accordingly? I know sometimes there’s a rift between fans who only dig one or the other (I still remember the howls when the then-Sci-Fi Channel dares to show something that might actually be fantasy!), so maybe there’s some desire to cleave off the stuff at the margins and claim it one way or the other.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. As I said in the original post, my beef is less about erecting boundaries around genres erasing grey areas and more the desire to see people treat fantasy (or crime fiction or romance or . . .) as just as able to raise serious issues as other genres. But maybe, in the end, it’s a lot of sound a fury and all that.

Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy?

Fantasy has a reputation for taking itself pretty seriously. Outside of some outliers like Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, the prevailing image of fantasy is that it’s about big deal themes of good against evil, fulfilling destinies, and such like that. The Lord of the Rings is not a “day in the life” story with no big stakes, after all. Indeed, in a lot of ways fantasy can seem – to use an epithet thrown at progressive rock all the time – “pretentious.” But for all that, when it comes to dealing with the big questions, the ones that probe the nature of reality and humanity, do people take science fiction more seriously than fantasy? Even to the point of letting that reflect how they categorize a story?

This occurred to me after I’d finished up The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

HarryAugust

The setup is this – the title character is one of a few select people in the world who live their lives over and over again. When they die, they basically go back to the beginning and are reborn, but with the collected memories of their prior lives still intact. Thus these are some seriously “ahead of their time” children roaming around, as you might guess. The story follows Harry as he lives a bunch of his lives and tries to stop another of his kind that is seeking a revelation will destroy the world. It’s pretty good, and has some really excellent bits. I recommend it.

When I finished the book I do what I usually do and seek out reviews to see what others thought about it. To my surprise, I saw a lot of people file The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under “science fiction,” which made little sense to me. Sure, there’s some discussion of quantum mechanics and parallel worlds (at i09, Charlie Jane Anders lists all this as reasons why “it’s a real science fiction book,” so what do I know?), but what makes the story go is the completely fantastic bit where these people live their lives over and over again. It’s never explained, much less with some kind of semi-plausible scientific reason. For all we know a genie thousands of years ago granted somebody’s wish and it got out of hand.

The mechanics don’t matter much because North uses them to deal with issues of free will, destiny, and the price of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge. These are the kinds of big issues that science fiction sometimes tackles, but that doesn’t mean that every story that does that is science fiction. Could it just be that people expect sci-fi to be more thoughtful about this stuff than fantasy?

Regular readers know one of my pet peeves is when people who write “Literature,” rather than just tell stories, write something that’s unambiguously fantasy or sci-fi but refuse to label it as such because of genre snobbery. This feels kind of the same way. Sure, fantasy is fine for satisfying tales of good vanquishing evil or ass-kicking vampire slayers, but if you want to ponder the big questions, well, it’s not for that. But why not?

Any story can plumb the depths of the big questions that have plagued humanity since we started walking upright. Genre doesn’t limit the stories you can tell, only change the way that they’re told. Embrace the idea that deep thoughts can come from anywhere in the library.

Serious