Why So Apocalyptic?

Ace of Spades has an interesting discussion on it here: Blame it on Obama!

Now that I have the DHS’ attention, (Which would not be the 1st time with one of my blogs. (*cough I dared mention Tea Party positively. Guess who visited the next day? cough*) let me explain: Hollywood follows the angst of the age. This ought to be axiomatic. Patriotic war films played on the fears of the enemy. Then the revisionist ones turned on our own fears of how our military was misused (Platoon, BlackHawk Down.) Westerns did the same with antiheroes becoming the “We’ll take ours” replacements for the libertarian heroes of another age. And John Wayne himself played on both sides of that divide. As Davey Crockett in the Alamo, and the first, and perhaps greatest of Western anti-heroes Ethan Edwards of The Searchers.

The 70s saw a spate of disaster movies that played on fears of corrupt government, running out of energy, 3 Mile Island to infinity, and so on. And then came Hollywood’s claim that the 80s were all about Greed. Funny, I was a teenager then. I don’t remember it the way Gordon Gecko claimed it. I would say it was the last time you were allowed to feel good about being American. Lots of people now talk about how ‘inevitable’ the fall of the USSR was. But they don’t seem to remember how Academia at the time was certain the Soviets would triumph. Red Dawn anyone?

Now, to the extent that Hollywood can be honest, they’re looking at the nihilism of our age. The disgust at the lack of progress we were promised. The difference between the world we imagined and the world that is. And the era of apocalypse is here. Zombies, “climate,” the Sweet Meteor of Death. We’ve always had some interest in the grinning mask of the Four Horsemen. It’s why the one book of the Bible anyone will stop to listen to interpretation of is Revelation. Why the core of communism is a reinterpretation of Amillenial Christian Eschatology in atheistic trapping. They admit this much. But they won’t touch the why. Because the why gets too close to the truth of the last decade: Big Government hasn’t delivered. It hasn’t overthrown Big Corporations, because they’re the ones who buy the seats at the table. It hasn’t helped the little guy. They’re still just as poor. Real wages have stagnated, so it’s not helping the middle class either. And there’s just not enough justice in Social Justice to justify the triumphalism. Not enough progress in progressivism. It’s been a decade as the hamster on the mill, and things just seem to be slowing down. Even the steampunk I love hints at this. The future we dreamed of isn’t the future we have. We recast it as Jules Verne and HG Wells’ future. But it’s the same fact: We went off track. The golden future was gilded.

The good news is: We aren’t finished yet. As long as we’re alive, there’s time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and right the ship. But first, we need to be willing to say, “We can do for ourselves. Thank you very much,” to our so-called betters who would like to do everything for us. We are not pets. We are people.

In Which The Evil League of Evil

Once Again Demonstrates it Knows More About Sci-Fi than The Grauniad. Well-played, Mr. Knighton.

http://tlknighton.com/?p=6989

Folks, just because you decided to sit down and read the synopses of a dozen movies, does NOT make you the expert on said movies. I’m not as big a fan of some Dystopian Fiction as our Fisker is. I think Divergent is rather poorly done (with flat-out terrible science in the succeeding installments). And I would say that Mockingjay is a desperate attempt to retrieve a Leftist vision from what was (intentionally or not) an anti-Big Government story. With the result that honestly, the third book falls flat, IMHO. It also doesn’t help that Katniss goes from central player to ‘hardly a participant.’ It may be more realistic, but it’s not interesting reading to have everything go on off-stage.

But I do love Blade Runner and would play Shadowrun in about as much time as it would take to grab my books and dice. So I can’t say I hate it, either. Indeed, a number of my stories are post-apocalyptic. Though one is already in the rebirth of civilization. Another is…well, the Guardian would hate it: It’s Weird Western, so it’s post-nuclear/magical apocalyptic Dystopian AND lone gunslinger. But yeah, it has action. šŸ˜‰ And my Urban Fantasy isn’t post-apoc yet. But if I ever write it far enough, I’ll get there, Kate Daniels style.

The bottom line as to why Dystopias are fun to write is, as Knighton says, it makes the commonplace interesting to write about. “Just another day in the office” is boring as probing for earwax. “Everyday is a struggle for survival” is inherently more interesting. That’s also why The Walking Dead despite its characters being Too Dumb To Live, is better television than 95% of the dross on the little screen. We’re convinced anything can happen. Anything can go wrong. It’s the NASCAR principle brought to scripted TV “Come for the car-crashes, stay for the concessions.”

So I’m saying Arrow is Going to the Lazarus Pits.

My guess is his old ‘host’ knows Oliver didn’t really murder Sara, and gives him the dip to bring him back.

Given that while Arrow as a series is in the crunchier/realistic end of the DC universe, this might seem a cheat. Except that Flash has been in play as well. So there’s no reason to believe the Pits couldn’t exist.

Seeing as the rumor mill says that the 1st 3 post-break episodes will be Canary-centric, I think this will give Star City a chance to break again while its protector is away. The 1st half of the season was rather introspective. And at times that might have seemed problematic. But I think it paid off in the end, as explanation for why Oliver would take Thea’s place.

Yes I’m Doing NaNoWriMo This Year

As I have every year for the past few. My project is a Space Opera, a sequel to my 2012 project in fact. It’s called The Procoyon Revelation. http://nanowrimo.org/participants/rangersg/novels/the-procoyon-revelation

It’s a galaxy at war, with shifting alliances, big battles, lots of intrigue, and plenty of snark, guns, and action. A touch of romance too, of course. šŸ˜‰ This is one of those things I am without question writing for me. I may have settled in fantasy, but classic Sci-Fi is how I discovered Speculative Fiction. And Space Operas are still some of my favorite viewing. For my money, seasons 2-4 of Babylon 5 are still the best television that’s ever been aired. Firefly not far behind. This is a cross of the more epic scale of B5 with the sensibilities of the latter.

I’ll let the reader guess what that means. šŸ˜‰

I Am Neither GrimDark Nor PollyAnna

While reading the ever-amusing Ace of Spades Book Thread http://ace.mu.nu/archives/352551.php, I followed a link to this article, where it seems that some have had their fill of Sci-Fi Dystopias. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathryn-cramer/speculative-fiction-book_b_5916266.html

This does not surprise me, as I suspect Dystopias grew popular in science fiction for the same reason that GrimDark rose to rule Fantasy. (A fact the author of the above article misses completely.) That is, that anti-heroes have grown from a once legitimate literary device to complement the hero/villain structure, to turn all of writing into a gray ammoral world where the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is who the primary point of view indicates we should root for. A fact Sarah A Hoyt commented on in her Human Wave manifesto (indicating this is no new concern):

5 ā€“ You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, Iā€™m not flinging my kindle.)

I am pleased to see those who hailed the arrival of these ‘ambivalent heroes’ now finally come to the ground we have held for most of a decade. I find it amusing that of all people to blame for no longer envisioning big futures, ASU’s president picked Neal Stephenson. Whose Anathem was probably his biggest and most optimistic future, set well after the more dystopic cyberpunks that made him famous. And even his retro-futures, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle provide optimistic glimpses of science, finance, and the progress of society. There are MUCH better targets to aim this charge at than Neal Stephenson. Also, at this point, I remind you of my posts on dystopic Sci-Fi’s mystic cousin, Grimdark fantasy here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/how-grim-is-too-much/, and here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/i-am-over-grimdark/. Blatant pessimism, moral ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, and no attempt to even FIGHT for a better world does not make for an entertaining story. Not fantasy, not sci-fi. And the prevalence of this nonsense is a large part of the reason for Mysteries being the big genre fiction for profit today. At least in those, there is closure, resolution, and a knowledge that justice has been done.

I don’t like them, by and large. As they are too formulaic, and the contrivances of the genre do nothing for me. However, their elevation at a time that Speculative Fiction is screaming ‘Diversity” and “realistic characters,” and hemorrhaging readership all the while, probably hints at a problem in the mindset. A problem that runs through the love of Dystopias, antiheroes, and an unwillingness to embrace a true heroic journey. You see, if you’re committed to moral relativity, there can’t be heroes. Everyone is just a different point of view. We can’t accept that some things are legitimately beyond the pale. A mystery gets around this by having a protagonist who is only judging the ‘facts.’ But what speculative fiction writers have to realize is that sympathetic aspects to a culture, or a villain, don’t make them heroic, as such. Just like flaws in the hero don’t make for anti-heroes, as such. A hero seeks to overcome their vices via their best qualities (and often they have the vices of their virtues). A villain makes a virtue of his vices. A hero admits there is darkness and accepts a measure of (gasp) hypocrisy in any moral creature is unavoidable. A villain spreads his arms like Don John and says, “At least I am plain dealing!”

Yeah, that doesn’t commend him much. This isn’t to say villains can’t be redeemed (over time), or that heroes won’t fall. This isn’t to say people can’t die trying to change the world, and the villains maybe even win. It means that we accept that morality exists outside of who wins or loses. And that the true hero may calculate the odds, but that doesn’t mean they refuse to do the right thing because of them. Or for comparison, let me leave with this:

A hero: The Iron Code of Druss the Legend: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

An Antihero: Jayne Cobb from Firefly: “Like my Daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t do the smart thing. Do the right thing.”

A Villain: “Kneel Before Zod!”

Objects in This Article Are Not to Scale

One of the recurring arguments I hear is the Low Fantasy/Epic Fantasy argument. That is, does the audience want small-scale stories where we spend time close to a few (or even one) character. Or is the balance in favor of the traditional Epic Fantasy (“saving the world”)?

This article is relating to games. But it dredges through this argument on the side of Low Fantasy/”small scale” story telling again. http://toybox.io9.com/im-sick-of-saving-the-world-the-case-for-smaller-scale-1631918032?utm_campaign=socialflow_io9_facebook&utm_source=io9_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

Here’s the first thing I’d say: It doesn’t matter.

No Really. This is a Much Ado About Nothing debate. Execution matters more than scale. Characters have to be memorable in either setting. And there has to be stakes, or we’re in the realm of navel-gazing lit-fic, and while you might get an award, you won’t have enough readers to buy you a pack of K-Cups. If the story isn’t something that resonates with the reader, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hacker hiding from the Corps in a CyberJungle, or off on the world-saving quest.

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence for an audience for both. Especially in books: Urban Fantasy sells. So does Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, or Malazan Book of the Fallen. Execute your vision well, market the story strongly, and there will be an audience. No, you won’t win everyone over. Guess what? No story does. But write your story with ambition, drive, quality characterization and a taut plot, and you have a chance. Don’t, and you won’t.

In games, I think it’s a little harder to prove. Everyone remembers Planescape. But it never really sold well, especially in comparison to the other Golden Era of Infinity Engine Black Isle/Bioware titles. The games we know: Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout, Diablo, and the Elder Scrolls series. They are all ‘save the world’ games. Set against that Planescape, a fine, if quixotic game. And if we’re being generous the Witcher series, which even here has a ‘global’ component to it. Now, do I think a smaller scale COULD work? Sure. But again, it has to be executed well.

I don’t buy what the article says about more ‘variety’ in smaller scale stories either. The only thing constraining either small or large scale stories is the imagination of the writer. Indeed, a large scale story can be comprised of several ‘smaller’ ones as subplots that tie into the overarching one. And a seemingly small scale story can blow up into a world-spanning one (See Dresden Files).

And as The Black Company showed, and Daniel Abraham is doing now with The Dagger and Coin series, one can write a seemingly large scale story from a constrained cast. Thus we see the universe as it effects each of the personal issues involves. Babylon 5 did this exceptionally well also. Londo and Mollari forming the heart of the story that the rest of the universe circled around.

So not only is this a Much Ado About Nothing Argument. In a very real sense, it’s an argument from a generation ago. This isn’t the Speculative Fiction environment anymore. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser CAN save the world.

What Do You Have Without Genre?

Perhaps this is why Damien Walter has lived for four years on the UK Government dole without producing the novel for which he was fronted. First of all, whether he likes it or not, Science Fiction is a genre.

Here is the definition of genre: “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” From the 19th century French, for ‘a kind.”

Now, what is disagreeable with the idea of Science Fiction as a category of art? It is, most certainly literature. We can debate the quality of each work on its own merits. Are there similarities of form, style, and subject matter? Well yes. Damien Walter could not speak to the return of the space opera (Though Peter Hamilton in particular might ask when it ever went away), if there was not a form Ancilliary Justice was attempting to utilize within the Science Fiction genre. Yes, authors might subvert or turn their forms at places. In fact, I’ve heard some argue that Space Opera is better rightly considered “Fantasy.” And no less an authority than George Lucas considered Star Wars “Space Fantasy.”

This is not a new thing. Nor is it entirely new that it be done solely for the purpose of ideology: C.S. Lewis did this with his Space Trilogy. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, I heartily despise allegory, with its forced symbolism and outside narrative attempting to force the reader to see the world the same way. It’s a cheat, a bore, and an intellectually dishonest approach to writing, IMHO. I find this just as true when the symbolism is one I agree with (Like Lewis), or something I do not. So the attempt to subvert or play with genre norms does not prove something is not that genre. One has to recognize the fact norms exist in order to subvert them. Eric Raymond’s article discusses what they are in some detail.

I would add to his list that typical to science fiction is the question: “What does it mean to be human?” As opposed to Fantasy, where the question is: “What is the cost of Virtue?” Another distinction is that science fiction, as Asimov stated, must both internalize science and form lively prose fiction, or it cannot be both “science” and “fiction.” Fantasy has no external rules on plausibility in its world, only internal coherence matters, both within the worldbuilding proper, and by the characters to the setting. This is true in China Mieville’s steampunk: where Khepri are forced to confront the question of humanity and society as much as the main character. Of course, maybe Walter, considering steampunk the ‘halfwit cousin of cyberpunk,’ couldn’t be bothered to read it, even when the writer is from his own political persuasion, far more clever, and capable of actual character depth in a way Ann Leckie’s work was not. Really, the gender-pronoun confusion issue is hardly new, or innovative, or confrontational. It’s been done. And better.

Unlike some, I do not assume everything at a publishing house can be discounted as if you know what it writes. Nor do I despise any particular house. My favorite current authors are Jim Butcher, Steven Erikson, Ilona Andrews, Larry Correia, Daniel Abraham (and his alternate identities), Sarah Hoyt, and Brandon Sanderson. I used to count Neal Stephenson, but his last two major works (Anathem and Reamde) do not, IMHO, match the standard he wrote from his cyberpunk up through The Baroque Cycle. In that list are authors from Ace, Baen, Orbit, Penguin, and Tor. Given my stance in the Hachette/Amazon controvery, one might assume Orbit doesn’t belong on that list. But there are a number of their authors I enjoy (Gail Carriger is another). And there are Baen authors that do not interest me.

I would also note that I doubt the politics of that group is monolithic, and to say Butcher, Erikson, Andrews, Abraham, or Sanderson have catered ‘to Right-wing’ at any point is ludicrous. Nor did I know Larry Correia’s politics when I started reading him (at the suggestion of fans on both Butcher’s and Erikson’s forums). Stylistically, the prose of these authors range from the minimalist and action oriented of the International Lord of Hate, to the Iowa-trained “literary” flourishes of Erikson. So it’s not the form of prose that catches me either. It is the ability to tell a story, in any genre. Whether playing straight with the conventions, subverting them, or mashing them together (as Urban Fantasy is famous for doing, and I’ve done a bit in my own writing). You have to know what the norms are to use them. Otherwise, you cheat the audience and turn them off.

It’s telling in Damien Walter’s article that he doesn’t consider entertaining the reader, or even keeping their interest, a primary purpose. It also informs me that if, in the next four government-sponsored years, his attempt at science fiction were to actually emerge, I’d be safe to ignore it. Not because of the politics. Only those on his side of the fandom divide care about the politics over the story. No. It’s because he has no respect for the form, the history, or the nature of the art-form. He is not writing to entertain. But to pontificate.

For that, I say the best place to write is in a political blog. I’m sure Huff Post could use another writer.

Shall Cthulhu Be Overthrown?

So the Progressive March through Science Fiction and Fantasy continues apace. Not being sated by ensuring the dreaded Sad Puppy slate was skunked (Despite Toni Weisskopf having more 1st place ballots than anyone and clearly meriting the award on more than one occasion. But hey, anyone who doesn’t support the Group Think abrogates all minority status for their evil independent thoughts.), now the Glittering Ones wish to cast down H.P. Lovecraft as the image of the World Fantasy Award and replace him with Octavia Butler. In true Progressive Fashion, they’ve gone to Change.Org, so we can have the White House talk about things other than what truly matters. Because they’ve done so well at handling the economy, foreign policy, and Ferguson. https://www.change.org/p/the-world-fantasy-award-make-octavia-butler-the-wfa-statue-instead-of-lovecraft

OK. I get it, H.P. Lovecraft is a very problematic person to uphold as a patron. His racial statements were difficult even in the time, and only become more raw in our over-sensitized age. (I have my own issues with his statements on faith and atheism.) Octavia Butler is a hero of modern Speculative Fiction. Both of them are generational talents, though I think only the most desperate Progressive would claim their proposed replacement’s legacy will ever match the foundational impact of Lovecraft on the genre. Personally, Butler isn’t my cup of tea, but I can respect her talent. I can even concede that as important as Lovecraft might have been, he’s not even, in the modern sense of the term, a Fantasy Author (though closer than Ms. Butler).

The problem is this: Nothing that Butler is known for is related to FANTASY. She wrote Speculative Fiction, Alt-History, and Science Fiction proper. The World Fantasy Award, contrary to the Hugos and Nebulas, is specifically not a blanket Speculative Fiction award. If you want to change the patron, then name a candidate that actually represents the GENRE. Of course, the Tor.com blog can’t even be bothered to point out this minor problem in the proposal. They’re too busy carrying the water for the long march of the Progressives: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/08/should-the-world-fantasy-award-be-changed?utm_source=exacttarget&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=tordotcom&utm_content=-na_read_BlogPost&utm_campaign

So here, let me share some alternatives, if the politics of Lovecraft and Howard are beyond the pale:

Tolkien? Only the founder of modern fantasy. And he’s the only writer with a larger footprint in the genre than either of the current patron or the proposed successor.

Roger Zelazny? The Amber Chronicles remain relevant, and his legacy is as rich as any.

Terry Prachett? Ok. This one might be a tad controversial. But it’s in the right way. He pokes at everything, and to be fair, Discworld, at its best, did one of the hardest things in writing: Merged coherent story telling (at least internally plausible) with effective satire.

Robert Jordan? I’m not a Wheel of Time fan. But I can’t deny its impact on the genre.

Any of these four, to me, would have been a better alternative, and one that actually fits the criteria of being a patron of Fantasy, than Ms. Butler. If this is actually about embracing the entire community, and not just giving another sop to political correctness, then we should name a candidate ALL of the fantasy community can support. And it’s best to start with someone who actually wrote in the genre, thank you.

Explaining Away the Magic

Ashley Capes shared an interesting take on “soft” magic systems today. http://mythicscribes.com/?wysija-page=1&controller=email&action=view&email_id=12&wysijap=subscriptions&user_id=712. I’ve had discussions on this in the past, including a rather interesting Twitter exchange with Nat Russo. While in general, I hold to Branden Sanderson’s First Rule of Magic, which is never have a PoV character use it without explaining it, it’s important to qualify that even there, he is talking about the Point of View character.

And even there, he’s quite willing to change the rules, let them learn things piecemeal, or just be flat out wrong on issues. See Kaladin in the Stormlight Archives. Neither he nor Shallan actually have much of the picture with regards to what they’re doing. And they learn more all the time. He did the same thing in Mistborn. So he’s certainly not adverse to having characters surprised by magic.

And I think that’s important. Especially if you have a character that doesn’t use or understand magic. Why should the reader inherently know more than the people living in the world? Let people be surprised. Let them learn by doing and interacting. Even when some things appear contradictory.

Contrary to the article, I don’t think this is a ‘market’ issue. It’s an issue of good storytelling. Whether you mean magic, tech in Sci-Fi, or high-stakes finance in a political potboiler. The rules the characters live under need to be explained as they’re encountered, to the extent they understand them. No more. No less. Neal Stephenson can get away with dropping an author tract that no one but ten people understand because he’s funny as Hell when he does it. But if your name is different from his, don’t get wrapped up in minutiae they haven’t seen. Let them explore, learn, read, and conjecture with the characters.

That’s what Speculative Fiction is about, at its heart, after all. The sense of wonder at finding the unknown, entering a new world and dwelling in it with the characters.

Hope Is All We Have

And sometimes it’s enough. So when I see that the series I still consider the best Sci-Fi ever to show on TV is being prepped for the Big Screen by its creator, JMS, I do hope.

That said, I’ve had this hope before. Several times. Is it going to work better to pitch a reboot? I guess we’ll have to see. Somehow I don’t think WB is going to get any more gung-ho about it this time than they have previously. They never truly supported the franchise in the first place, even when it was the best thing they had.

On the other hand, JMS didn’t have a stable production company then. Is it big enough to manage this? Maybe on the cheap, as the TV series ran. But then, one thing the series proved is that writing and plot trump overpriced models.

Another space opera I’d like to see made is the Honor Harrington series. Supposedly one is in the works. But right now, I’ve only seen the mobile game. Still, Horatio Hornblower IN SPACE. What more do you need?

On another sci-fi related note: I watched Guardians of the Galaxy last night. It wasn’t a Marvel property I knew anything of. Yet coming out, I have to say I found it certifiably epic. The International Lord of Hate, Larry Correia’s review, was that it was like Star Wars, with more Han Solos. I’d say it wins because the emphasis on FUN overrides any worry about plausibility. Still, great flick. And I didn’t think it would be one when I heard about it.