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.”

“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

On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

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Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

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I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

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Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

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I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Fantasy Doesn’t Have to Be “Accurate,” It Just Has to Be Compelling

A while back I wrote about how research can be important, and idea-provoking, when it comes to writing fantasy. The gut reaction might be that writing fantasy means you can just make everything up as you go along. It’s not that simple, but one of the joys of writing fantasy is the freedom it gives you to mold the world your story is set in to the needs of the story itself. That’s why questions like this bug me:

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That’s from one of the fantasy author Facebook groups I’m in. I chimed in asking for more information about what kind of time period we’re talking about, since the kind of rigorous border regulation we know today is a fairly recent invention. But more than that, I asked what the writer’s story needed? After all, it’s fantasy, so why be bound to mundane reality?

I think that when it comes to worrying about research in fantasy it comes in two flavors. One is research for inspiration – you’re not looking to see how things are or were done in order to have your characters do the same thing, but you’re trying to spark your own creativity. The most obvious case of this is reading history, which is full of bizarre and compelling story fuel that can be molded to fit just about whatever world your telling your story in.

An example of this is one I’ve mentioned before – the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy was inspired by reading about Napoleon’s 100 Days and thinking about how he was handled – exiled only to return – sounded like something that would happen to the bad guy in a fantasy series. What actually takes place in The Water Road is very different, but the bones of it are still there.

The other situation is the one where I think people get hung up sometimes, that is doing research about the right or correct or “accurate” way to do something. That’s a situation where you need to have a character do something or have something happen to the character and you want to make sure it feels right. That kind of research is good and necessary – you can’t really write fantasy without any research (including as “research” here knowledge you’ve already obtained) – but it’s important not to let the reality overwhelm the story.

As an example, the world of Gods of the Empire includes steam-powered autocars (of course it does, it’s steampunk!), but they’re mostly toys of the rich. So as part of his travels Aton gets to ride in one and I wanted to have a scene where he observed the startup of one of these things, to capture the kind of Rube Goldberg beasts that they are. I did some scrounging and found a very good video of someone going through the startup for an restored Stanley Steamer, originally built around 1911:

Cool, huh? It provided some great details that I was able to put into that part of the book, but I didn’t just take down what the guy did in the video and transport it to the book. Why? For one, while providing a glimpse of the startup routine is a nice way of deepening the world building it’s a grace note on the overall story, not a subplot – I didn’t want to divert for that long. For another, the character in my book wasn’t starting a Stanley Steamer, but rather a similar vehicle in a different world with differing technologies. In other words, I was only concerned about being accurate to my world, not the real world.

Research while writing fantasy is kind of like the old saw about knowing the rules of writing (or any artistic endeavor). It’s not important to know the rules to slavishly follow them, but it is important to know them so that when you break them you can think of why you’re breaking them and to what effect.

Say, for example, you want to have a two-feet-tall sprite in your story wield a long steel broadsword. Physics tell you that in the real world (assume a real world with sprites, people) that wouldn’t work – the sword is too big and too heavy for the sprite to pick up, much less wield. Does that mean it can’t happen because it would not be “accurate.” No! This is fantasy – anything can happen, if you want it to, but you need to figure out how, in your world, such a thing is possible. Maybe the sword is enchanted and can be wielded by anyone who is worthy? Maybe sprites are supernaturally for some cool reason in your world? It doesn’t matter, so long as you realize that some fanstaticking is going to have to happen.

Which, after all, is the point, right? One different between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy is really only limited by your imagination. Sci-fi, at least in theory, is tethered to the realities of the real world, however much one can extrapolate from them. Fantasy not only lets you think outside the box, but blow up the box completely. It’s a great power to have, being able to mold the world to fit your story – why shouldn’t you use it every chance you get?

Wonka