fantasy

Themed Anthos – A Good Foot in the Door

Today continues the set of two articles on my own writing experience that began on Wednesday. If people like these (and possibly even if they don’t, I’ll likely continue them in the future).

At the risk of seeming like a complete jerk (and yes, I’m aware that many of you feel that that ship sailed long ago) I will tell you a story about how I got started as a writer.

I sat down and wrote a story over a couple of days.  I fixed some typos and I sent it out on submission. I sent it out to three markets that rejected it.  The fourth bought it.  That story, entitled “Tenth Orbit” not only gave its title to my first collection, but has been reprinted in seven languages and still sells as a reprint now and then.  Also, the news sparked what was probably the ugliest celebration dance in history, but you really, really don’t want to know the details.

The point of this isn’t to make you hate me.  I’ve had the same amount of rejection and heartbreak as every other writer, but the fact that my road into print was comparatively easy meant that I never had to listen to that nagging voice in my mind that said “nothing you write will ever be good enough to sell.”

Nevertheless, I often get the feeling that nothing I write from now on will ever be as good as what came before, and that the prose I’ve produced over the past six months is simultaneously infantile, pompous, pretentious and shallow.  Being all four might seem impossible, but I often feel that way, especially when a dry spell comes along.

I’ve found that a good way to break through this is to go to your favorite marketplace report (I use The Grinder and Ralan for genre projects) and select a themed anthology looking for submissions – make sure you choose one with a deadline far enough off to give you a chance to write a story.

I’ve found this approach to have several benefits.  The first is that the guidelines and theme will tell you exactly what you need to write.  If you can’t follow instructions telling you to send over a 2500 word story about alcoholic koala bears in space, then, sadly, you’re never going to be a writer.  Reading comprehension is a good part of writing, after all.

The good part of the above is that for many projects you will only be competing against other stories written specifically for that antho.  While a place like Asimov’s might get thousands of subs in a month, an antho of this type might get only a few hundred.  Many of those will be by illiterates or people who don’t know what a koala bear actually is.  Yes, the odds are still long – that’s part of being a writer – but they are better than at other places.

The second benefit is that you probably don’t have an alcoholic koala story lying around, which means that you will have to stop and create something completely new, break out of a rut.  I’ve always found this to be a cool way to refresh the writing spirit.

A third benefit (assuming you write a good story and they buy it) is that at the end of it, apart from the money, you’ll have a shiny contributor’s copy filled with the work of a bunch of amazingly talented authors who love alcoholic koalas as much as you do.  It will feel amazing to be surrounded by these people, and you’ll also ask yourself what the editors were thinking when they bought yours as well…  but don’t worry, every author thinks that.

Strange Bedfellows Edited by Hayden Trenholm

This is often the best part.  I recently read a couple of anthos with my work in them, and I thought it would be fun to use them to exemplify the range of what’s possible here.  They’re both from 2014 (my TBR pile needs a new type of mathematics to describe it and it takes me a looong time to get to any book mired therein) and I place them here for your perusal.

The first is a pro-rate-paying antho (as defined by SFWA) entitled Strange Bedfellows, Edited by Hayden Trenholm. The guidelines for this one were pretty open: the story had to be about politics.

So I sent them a tale called “Gloop”, which, though not espousing any particular political leaning, clearly showed the effects of politics on the lives of the characters and their society.  The other stories were well-written, mostly left-leaning, but with a couple of more conservative stories to balance it out, and overtly political.  As one expects with this theme, philosophy and thought-out ideas (as well as a certain amount of pontification) were everywhere, but there was plenty of action and entertainment as well.

Undead and Unbound Cover

The second seems, at first glance, to be the polar opposite.  Undead and Unbound, edited by Brian M. Sammons and David Conyers, does exactly what it says on the tin.  Anything walking around after someone killed it was fair game.

Honesty compels me to admit that I was invited to this one, but it still made me sweat.  My problem was that I didn’t want to write a story that was just like everyone else’s.  I didn’t want to be a zombie in a sea of zombies, or just another vampire.

So I decided that a wight might do the trick, especially if that wight came alive during the Blitz and called it “Thunder in Old Kilpatrick”  To my relief, they accepted it…

The most interesting thing about this one, however, is that when I came to read it, it defied all my expectations about what an “undead” theme would include.  The writers went to great lengths to make their stories memorable, and the antho is extremely well written.  Definitely not just a piece of fluff for people with short attention spans.  So you can toss those prejudices out the window – your average call for zombie stories is going to require a lot of talent and imagination to get into.

And speaking of throwing out those prejudices, here’s another one that contains one of my stories.  I think you’ll agree that there’s an antho out there for everyone.  It’s just a question of finding the right call for submissions and writing the right story.

Sinisterotica Anthology Cover

 

Gustavo Bondoni was interviewed today by Jessica A. Scott.  His latest novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

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Shared-World Anthologies – One Writer’s Experience

This week, I’ll be looking at the very different experiences I’ve had in publishing my short work.  Time permitting, I’ll do a post on Friday about a more typical antho (if not Firday, then next week for sure), but today, I’ll be discussing a pretty specific and unusual market type: the shared-world antho.

Like many readers, I was originally introduced to the concept of a shared world by the Thieves’ World anthos in the 1980s (they might have been created earlier, but I was reading in the 80s).   Memory is a bit fuzzy, but I was probably drawn to them because Robert Asprin‘s name was on the cover and I had just discovered his Myth books.

They were delightful books which I devoured (I was about twelve at the time and they were perfect).  Looking for more of the same, I came across the Heroes In Hell Series. And I saw something interesting:  many of the writers in both series were the same.  Strange.

Years later, I was invited by a friend to take part in a volume of the Sha’Daa series, edited by Michael H. Hanson  and Edward F. McKeon.  The basic premise is that, once every ten thousand years, the Sha’Daa – a demonic invasion of Earth – occurs.  And it’s due soon…  I was stunned and delighted, because I’d been watching from the sidelines as these books attained a bigger and bigger readership.  I didn’t take very long to give them a resounding “Yes”.

When I asked why he’d thought of me, my friend said the following: “I asked around and people like working with you because you deliver clean, quality prose on time.”  So yeah, I’m a hack, but it may be the nicest thing anyone has said of me as a writer.  Professionalism is something I value and, it appears, so do others.  It gave me my first Inkling of why so many writers were the same people across those eighties anthos: evidently, they played well with others, got things in on time and didn’t try to blow up the sandbox.

Next, of course, I had to produce a decent story.  Flop-sweat time! Not only did I have to produce a decent story on command, but it needed to fit.  Luckily, I had reviewed one of the first two books for SFReader so I knew what I was getting into.  I also read the other volume and took copious notes on what worked well and what had already been done.

Sha Daa Pawns Cover

Then I sat down to write my own tale for Sha’Daa Pawns.  I wanted to do something different that fit the dark spirit of this amazing series well.  I set my own tale, Blood Stone in an African diamond mine, a milieu which I’d never really seen explored in speculative form.

When they accepted my piece with some minimal edits, I was delighted.  When they showed me the cover I was stunned.  And then they invited me back for the next one: Facets… which made the whole process and insecurity start over.  They wanted this one to be in epistolary/documentary text form, a style I’d always shied away from but, for reasons having to do with the structure of the planned book, fit perfectly.

When someone says “epistolary” I immediately think two things: Dracula and Victorian era.  So I went in that direction style-wise (albeit I made the setting a bit more modern) and, to my surprise, the story came together really well.  I managed to tell the tale I wanted seamlessly without stretching the form past its breaking point (or at least past the point where the reader would break, which would have been worse).

Sha'daa Facets Cover

The entire experience was different from anything else I’ve ever done in publishing.  Sometimes a detail had to be changed to fit another story.  At other times, the editors would ask you to change a little thing here or there to avoid a demonic apocalypse (always a danger in this series).  I recommend it to everyone.  The dynamic will certainly help you grow.

Once the stories were published (a couple of years apart) and I received my copies, I realized that this series is going from strength to strength.  My thoughts on these volumes pretty much reinforced the initial impression of the one I’d reviewed back when I was an impartial observer: the author lineup is strong, the action is excellent and I feel honored to be among them – and each of them had to play nice with others to earn their place there.  Cool to see, and I can only imagine what the editors went through to create those.

So, for the writers who have asked me how to get into the shared-world antho business, that’s the answer: be easy to work with, deliver your edits on time, and word will get around.  Oh, and write the best stories you can, too.

If you happen to hear of one of these being formed, write an author or editor already on the team who’s worked with you before.  You never know what might result!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Incursion: Shock Marines, was released in September.  He recommends that you read it before something else comes out and he has to change this signature.  If that happens, you might miss it and you do not want that to happen (he says to trust him on this)!

What Happens When the Writer Dies?

A friend of mine who is also an excellent writer once told me that he doesn’t read doorstop fantasy series until they are complete.  The reason is that he is always afraid that the writer will die in the middle of it and leave him hanging.

As a writer myself, I begged to differ.  Everyone knows that we’re made of better stuff than that, and no self-respecting author would ever allow his body to fail in the middle of a series.  Priorities are priorities: readers come first, natural law a distant second.

Then, in 2007, Robert Jordan died–way too young–leaving us with The Wheel of Time three quarters of the way done.

A quick note about The Wheel of Time.  Nowadays, everyone and his kid sister like to brag about their knowledge regarding Game of Thrones.  But the show, and the series of books that it was drawn from, would have had a much more difficult path to publication and popularity if Wheel of Time hadn’t been a smash runaway bestseller.  Robert Jordan followed in the footsteps of some writers (Terry Brooks comes to mind) but the huge success of his saga opened up the doorstop fantasy sub category (for more on it, here’s my take on The Runelords, another series that likely owes its existence to Jordan).

But, despite his importance, tragedy struck and readers wondered what would happen next?

It’s a difficult decision for a publisher to make.  In some cases such as Robert Ludlum, and now Tom Clancy, the publisher simply keeps using the writer’s name and hopes no one reads the obituaries.  The real writer’s name is often featured in smaller letters saying something like “with Edward Edwardsson” (of course for sales like that, I’d gladly write a techno-thriller…).

Other publishers openly admit that their guy is gone and get another name author to wrap things up.  Think of And Another Thing by Eion Colfer.  It’s a good book, it’s a funny book. And no one is pretending the humor is anything like what Douglas Adams would have produced.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t make it bad.

The publishers of the Wheel of Time decided to go with a more Robert Ludlum-esque approach.  They signed up-and-coming writer Brandon Sanderson, locked him in a room with Jordan’s copious notes and outlines and told him to write the last three books in the series in such a way that everyone would think Robert Jordan did it (OK, I’m not sure if they locked him in a room for the time it took him to write three humungous novels.  If they did, that had better have been one hell of an advance!).

Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson  A memory of light Brandon Sanderson

To Sanderson’s credit, he pulled the magic trick off without a hitch, and the concluding books are just as good as the preceding volumes.

This was a rare case where a tragedy was good for all the survivors.  Tor got the sales they were probably counting on from this series.  Readers got the conclusion they wanted to the series.  And Sanderson became a household name among fantasy readers (I will admit to having asked who he was when I first heard the news).  In a limited sense, even Jordan came out ahead (I assume he would rather not have died, of course): his vision and notes were used to create the final product, and his style was respected.

All of which doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed. A major problem I have is that I’m in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the rate they’re being written, I certainly hope George RR Martin has the immortality thing figured out…

 

Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging, also writes.  His latest novel, Incursion, is a fun romp about what happens when a suicide mission gets really complicated.

On the Importance of Choosing a Good Magic System

Last week we discussed a series of fantasy books that, despite having a pretty standard “new age and elves” style magic system, is still beautiful and memorable because of the way characters and prose wove together to make a completely different kind of magic.

But what if you are not a supreme prose stylist, but simply an excellent writer attempting to give the world a rollicking good yarn?  Unless you do something different, of course, your books are very unlikely to ever see the light of day, and sometimes, if they do, they won’t make a huge impression.

A good way to make sure you leave a mark is via the magic system.  Make the rules of the magic strange, different excessively arcane, and then figure out all the ramifications… and you’re likely to have a brilliant story waiting to get out.

runelords cover David farland

David Farland’s (real name, Dave Wolverton) The Runelords is probably the best example of  a hugely imaginative magic system with serious consequences for all involved that I’ve come across in a lifetime of reading big fantasy series.

In short (and attempting not to give spoilers), each Runelord (generally, albeit not always of noble birth) can take “endowments” of different characteristics from people willing to give them.  This makes them stronger in that particular characteristic.   The downside is that the person who donates the ability loses that quality.  So giving an endowment of brawn leaves you weak as a babe, one of sight blind as a bat, etc.

You can give the strangest things, and all are useful.  Grace, for example. Or – and this one has drastic consequences – metabolism.

A lot of the politics of the series revolve around how to accumulate endowments, and how to protect those who’ve given the endowments from being massacred by people who don’t particularly want their rivals to have that power.

It makes for a nicely convoluted political backdrop to a “journey of the hero” plot with some truly alien bad guys getting tossed in once the foundations are laid.

This isn’t necessarily my favorite fantasy doorstop series (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that that one is probably The Wheel of Time endless descriptions of ladies’ blouses and all), but I wholeheartedly recommend this one not only to readers who are looking for some fantasy fun, but also to other writers.  It’s a masterful example of using your magic system to shape the life and politics of a secondary world.

And as the original 4 book series (which I’ve recently finished) advances, the consequences of the magic system grow ever deeper.

Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story Writer.  His latest novel is Incursion: Shock Marines.

The End of Deverry

Most of the huge, sprawling Heroic fantasy series I’ve read deal with a single set of characters and follow them through the conclusion of a single crisis (or perhaps more than one if the author made a lot of money and decided to keep writing).

That makes a lot of sense.  After all, it’s the formula that Papa Tolkien set out for everyone when he invented the sub-genre  (fortunately, I have not yet succumbed to writing one of these, or else I wouldn’t be that smug!).  Look at The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, or the Belgariad and Malloreon.  All of these now-classic series used the formula, and all of them have at least one title with the word “bestseller” in the blurb.

Terry Brooks took the idea one step further by simply having several different generations of his characters have essentially the same adventures over and over again (he does it really well, too.  I for one, can see what he’s doing and still buy his books).

Perhaps the only contemporary writer to vary the formula (albeit only slightly) and be a huge commercial success is George R. R. Martin, and I will be very interested in seeing how the newer generations of my writing peers respond to his lead.  I expect quite a bit of the sincerest form of flattery, to be honest.

But for a twist that really twists, I would recommend a dark horse that most people haven’t heard of.  Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, which I’ve recently, with my reading of The Silver Mage, completed.

The Silver Mage by Katharine Kerr Cover

A quick note on this.  Finishing the Deverry cycle, though rewarding, was like losing an old friend.  It ran from 1986 to 2009, and I joined the party in about 1991 or so.  Fifteen books later, I’m done.  A bittersweet moment.

But back to why it’s special.  Kerr does something that few other fantasists (I can’t think of another who has an epic series doing this) do: she uses the same characters over and over in different time frames, but they are reincarnated.  So things that happen to one guy might lead to terrible revenge or good karma for the same soul (but a different character) a thousand years later.  And since the timelines are all woven together, different time periods occur in different books, so you might have a chapter that takes place two hundred years before the one preceeding it.

The magic, of course, is in the fact that it all winds up making sense in the end.  As a writer, all I can do is tip my hat with respect and say “better her than me.”

Another thing that recommends this series is the writing style.  It’s a bit dreamy, a little literary and very feminine.  Fortunately, however, there is enough good, old-fashioned sword- and catapult- driven mayhem to keep genre fans happy. There are also dragons That is a good thing.  The balance of the two elements is well-managed and effective.

Perfect?  I suppose not.  Though I enjoyed these, they might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  The character set can feel a little new-agey (that cover above should be a dead giveaway…). There are, fortunately, no unicorns that I can recall, but the elves all live in the west and the magic system is more seventies crystals than magic swords.  I also had one good friend tell me they abandoned the series when one of the human characters became a dragon.  I didn’t love that twist, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me, and I read on until the end.

NOTE: After I posed this, Katharine Kerr herself (wow!) clarified the origins of the magic system in the comments.  It’s much more complex and nuanced than I had originally assumed so I urge you to have a look in the comments for the real story.

Anyway, if you do pick it up, drop me a line.  In the meantime, consider this post my farewell to an old friend.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. 

Inspiring Disney Since 1946

beauty and the beast 1946 poster

If you’re anything at all like me, you will often find yourself watching a Disney film and shaking your head in disbelief at the sheer talent and creativity on display.  Where, you’ll ask yourself, do they get all these amazing ideas?

Part of it is the source material, of course.  By borrowing from humanity’s most beloved myths and legends, the company is assured a product that, for whatever reason, is a proven commodity that pushes the buttons of audiences, and often has been doing so for hundreds of years.

That’s incredibly smart, but it’s just a base on which they then unleash some of the most talented directors, artists and animators on the planet.  The results speak for themselves.  I still remember watching Aladdin (first Disney feature I saw in a cinema as a teenager after years of disdaining cartoons) and being completely blown away by it.

But at least in once case, I know where they got most of their ideas and aesthetic, and that one is Beauty and the Beast.  Simply stated, the 1991 Disney edition is a remake of Jean Cocteau‘s 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête.

This is a huge relief to me because the excessive talent of the people working on modern films was driving me to drink, so it’s a bit of a relief to know it isn’t all down to their own creativity.  It’s nice to know that they are inspired by someone else every once in a while, and that they are humble enough not to mess with perfection… only to animate it!

There’s no need to summarize the plot of the 1946 film.  It’s the Beauty and the Beast after all, but it has to be acknowledged that what Cocteau pulled off in immediate post-war France was extremely impressive.  Dark, moody sets, an ever-present sense of utter magic and the feeling of being immersed in a fairy tale that looked just how a peasant in 1800 would have imagined it to look must not have been easy to achieve.

But most of all, it was interesting to see just how many of the elements were familiar to viewers of the 1991 animation.  The creative teapots, candelabra and other living elements were included, albeit not as characters in their own rights.  Despite being made nearly fifty years later, it is clear that the Disney film was more than just inspired by the earlier movie–they simply updated it.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

They also chose to leave the beast as he was–they are remarkably similar in concept, considering the huge leeway allowed by animation versus having to apply makeup to an actor using what was available in Europe in 1946.

It was an inspired decision–the old film is still the definitive B&B, so messing too much with the formula would have been unwise in the extreme, and thanks to that, the animated version is now a classic in its own right.

There have been other takes on this legend, both on stage and on screens big and small.  None have stood the test of time as well as these two (the awful TV series, especially), essentially because the most important elements–the visuals of the beast and his castle–are identical in every significant way.

And now, I’m even more impressed with the Mickey Mouse guys.  Knowing when to leave well enough alone is just as difficult as knowing when to solve problems in the most creative way possible.  But for my money, I’ll still take Cocteau’s version.

Not much strangeness surrounding the production of this one, so we’ll drop in a racing driver piece (at Classically Educated, we enjoy auto racing, mainly because of its social unacceptability): it seems like one of the actresses, Mila Parély was married to multiple Le Mans entrant Taso Mathieson.  We approve.

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

SciFan Magazine #9 Released

Here at Classically Educated, we have a lot of literary and cultural friends, and we’re always happy to give them a shout-out when they do something notable.  SciFan Magazine is one of them, and they’ve recently put out their ninth issue (in a world where many publications never make it past the first two or three, that is truly an achievement worth celebrating).

SciFan Magazine - Issue 9

The nice thing about SciFan is that they combine science fiction and fantasy, preferably in the same tale, which makes it a haven where readers of hard to classify tales can scratch that particular itch.

The ninth issue is particularly packed with stories and serials by Chris Nardone, Todd Sullivan, Patrick Hodges, Ken Goldman, M. C. Tuggle, Sarah L. Johnson, Mandi Jourdan, A.M. Justice, Tom Fallwell, Richard Flores IV, Fariel Shafee, Matthew McKiernan, and Stan Faryna as well as three novel previews and an interview with Andrey Vasiliev.

We think this is a good bet for our SF/F reading fans (we’re always surprised at how many we have), and one you might not have heard of before.

Enjoy!

 

Reading vs. Writing: A Reflection

A contributor’s copy* I read recently made me stop and think.  This is a rare enough occurrence that I thought I’d immortalize it here.

First, some background.  As a reader, the best description for me is omnivorous.  From Tolkien to Dostoyevsky to Joyce, I’ve read a little bit of everything (yes, I finished Ulysses, no, I haven’t yet dared take on Finnegan’s Wake) but if you told me that my memory of a single book would be erased so I could enjoy it again, I’d choose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Admitting to lowest-common-denominator tastes–not just science fiction but science fiction and humor–instead of citing Pliny the Elder might get me tossed off the Classically Educated editorial board** but I stand by the choice.  It’s probably the book I love most in the world.

Of course, looking at a good portion of my writing, this doesn’t shine through.  It can very often be dark and grim.  Sometimes it takes itself very seriously.

I also like happy endings… but most of my characters, at least in my short fiction, come to endings that are anything but joyous.  In fact, they are often messy, painful and protracted endings which are also untimely in the extreme.  And they often don’t enjoy what comes before.

Finally, I don’t care if the fiction I read is particularly inclusive or politically activist.  In fact, stories that get preachy tend to get a thumbs-down from me even if I agree with the politics.  Which is why I will equally cheerfully demolish the writing of Ayn Rand or the writing of most of the current left-leaning SF genre.  Both are crap, and the only people not admitting it are Rand’s fans and the people in the SF echo chamber.

Which brings me to my own writing and the book I was reading.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 2

First, the book.  It was while reading the Apex Book of World SF Volume 2 that I asked myself how I ended up participating in a project that has a very specific and very political objective: to encourage greater diversity in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres by bringing in writers from countries not usually represented in the genre. I came in as both an Argentine and a Latin American (which is weird, because at the rate I sell stories, I would have thought that Argentina was way over-represented, at least in the short fiction world, but there you have it).  My story in the book is called “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever”.

It’s very definitely not the kind of book I would have picked up of my own volition.  And many of the stories are clearly aimed at making the world a better, more inclusive place (not something I like to be able to identify in the fiction I read – if there’s a message, make it sneaky, not overt).

But then I realized that, far from standing out (or even just standing apart), my story fit in perfectly.  Without spoiling it for anyone wishing to read it, my tale has the following in common with the rest:

  • It’s written in a style that would have made the Golden Age writers denounce me as some kind of literary elitist (and my writing style is pretty straightforward compared to some in the genre).  Some might simply say well-written (every single tale in this book is well-written) but my definition of well-written is more based on writing for your audience, which means that, to me, Golden Age and Pulp Fiction was perfectly well written.
  • It focuses on a not-so-often seen culture.
  • It respects that culture’s beliefs and shows how valuable that respect can be… or else (my stories always have an “or else” factor some of the others in the book, not so much).
  • It’s strongest character is a woman.

I didn’t set out to do any of these things, of course.  I just set out to write a story about Portuguese explorers in Tierra del Fuego inspired by the reports that the natives built dozens of campfires that could be seen from  the sea, hence the island’s name.  If you think about it, fires burning in the darkness of an unexplored land is a powerful image.

But any reader whose political or social justice leanings is specifically looking for those elements will see them and nod approvingly.  They aren’t what the story is about, and they aren’t (in my opinion) an important part of the story’s message.  I don’t care about those things except as far as to treat everyone decently.  I’m definitely not an activist of any sort.

But what happens when a reader who HATES the modern trends in SF sees some of these same elements in a novel?  This review is what happens.

Interestingly, I am about as left-leaning as, say, Genghis Khan, which means that my friends on both sides of the political spectrum have ribbed me ceaselessly for this review.  But you have to respect it: it talks about what the reader SAW in the book.  Not what I tried to put in there (for the record, it’s a military SF novel chock full of action and things that go boom… that just happens to have two female protagonists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence making them main characters).

Isaac Asimov told a story that illuminated this phenomenon (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember it word for word): It seems he was at a talk where a critic discussed one of his books and the motivations and themes that were present.  After the presentation, Asimov, it seems, went up to the critic and told him that he, the critic, had misread the work.  The critic said: “What do you base your opinion on?”  Asimov pulled himself up to his full height and said: “I wrote the thing.”  To which the critic responded: “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”

I assume that pretty much ended the conversation, but the point is made.  A writer’s control over the meaning of what he writes is essentially zero.  Readers (and critics, unfortunately) will find that for you, and they will always find stuff that you didn’t mean to put there.

And yes… you will find yourself writing fiction that you might not have thought to read, and appearing in anthologies you would never have picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent you a copy.

Life is a funny old thing.

 

*For those who are unaware of what a contributor’s copy is, it’s a copy that an author receives of his work.  Often, this is a periodical or book in which a story by the author is included.

**they can’t, I’m the boss.  Besides, the manifesto specifically states that we’re supposed to talk about a bunch of different stuff.

Today’s post was written by Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Bondoni.

 

Noir Fantasy – Double the Fun

Anyone who’s been following Classically Educated is well aware that we have a soft spot for noir around here.  We like it in film, we like it in writing.  We would like it in plays and tweets if it were available widely in those formats.

We also enjoy the fantasy genre.  Again, film and literature are our preferred genres, but who can really resist playing Zelda every now and then?

So when writers decide to mash these two genres together, we sit up and pay attention, with the result that we’ve decided to share some of our experiences with two very different takes on the subject.

Exhibit A is a recent anthology entitled Darker Than Noir, edited by Faith Kauwe.  It’s a collection of short stories which does exactly what the title says:  blend the noir detective sensibility with the darker end of the fantasy spectrum.  A few of the tales could rightly be called supernatural horror, but all have fantastic elements.

Darker Than Noir

In this book, our fearless–or, in other tales, hapless– detectives investigate everything from actors who want to stay young forever to misdeeds at a furry convention.  There’s something here for every taste, as long as you like it dark and with hardboiled sensitivities.

As a primer to get one’s feet wet, it’s nearly ideal.

But that’s an appetizer – for the main course we’d like to discuss the man who, in our view, takes hardboiled fantasy to its most exalted heights:  Glen Cook.  Yes, he’s better known for his military fantasy series, The Black Company, but we’d argue that he will be remembered for being the man who most perfectly blended put a human private eye in a world of elves, ogres and pixies.

Cook’s P.I. Garrett series has to be one of the most entertaining fantasy series out there, bar none.  It tells the tale of a former marine who makes his living by investigating crimes.  As expected in a fantasy world, the bad guys are usually both magical and very, very twisted.

Sweet Silver Blues - Glen Cook

What makes these compelling, though, is the main character’s voice.  Honoring the noir canon, they are told in the first person, in the world-weary, street-savvy voice we’ve come to love from the genre.  Garrett shows his human side early and often, and in so doing makes you laugh and suffer with him.  It really is a change from implacable heroes (even the flawed ones are often implacable in fantasy) and perfect elves we’ve come to expect.

It’s not our intention to do a blow-by-blow of each book here (read them, you’ll thank us), but just to point readers who share our interest in a couple of interesting directions.  Both of these very different propositions proved entertaining–so think of our pointing you their way as a public service!