genre stuff

9May

Fan Fiction – Updates

Some extra coverage of all the fan fiction brouhaha.

Nick Mamatas declares George R.R. Martin to be wrong on Lovecraft:

Leaving aside the “issue” of fan fiction in general, Martin’s most egregious errors deal with Lovecraft. I’m sure other people will flense Martin about the tangled mess of his various claims, but I’ll step up for the old man. Martin’s tubthumping is bad enough without grabbing Lovecraft’s corpse by the ankles, giving it a shake and going, “Boogah boogah! Every time you write a Harry Potter fan fiction, God starves a racist to death!” (If only!) Martin’s errors are three:

a. Lovecraft did not “lose control” of his copyrights because he allowed other writers to make reference to characters in his stories.

b. Lovecraft did not die in poverty because of this loss of copyrights.

c. If anything, the unclear provenance of Lovecraft’s copyrights after his death (when they would have done him little good anyway) is what kept Lovecraft’s work in print and vital to this day.

Martin writes a general follow-up post:

A number of commenters suggested that I was wrong in my assertion that copyrights need to be defended, and suggested that I was confusing copyrights with trademarks. Perhaps so. This was raised often enough that it is obviously something I need to look into further. There were also posters who agreed with what I wrote, however, including some who identified themselves as lawyers or law students, so I don’t think the issue is as clear cut as the “trademark” folks are claiming. I’ll investigate this, and if I was wrong about this, I will come back here and say so (eventually, this is not my top priority in life). If I was right, I’ll come back and mention that as well.

ERB v HPL. I never said that allowing others to play with the Cthulhu mythos was the ONLY reason Lovecraft died in poverty. Actually, I am a huge Lovecraft fan, and not much of a Burroughs fan at all (though Melinda Snodgrass and I did once work on the screenplay for A PRINCESS OF MARS). I know a lot about HPL. His work has been hugely influential on modern horror. But my point stands. I could write a Cthulhu Mythos novel tomorrow, and I would not have to pay a dime to any Lovecraft estate (if such exists) or get their permission. I would never dare write a Barsoom novel, though surely PRINCESS is in the public domain by now. (The later John Carter and Tarzan novels may still be under copyright).

Speculative Horizons goes back to the core and declares fan fiction to be pointless:

If you want to be a writer, write your own material. A lot of people have argued they write fanfic to develop their writing ability, but I think you’ll improve much more quickly and to a greater extent if you’re creating your own characters. After all, characters are the heart of every story, and pissing about with characters that someone else has devised and developed isn’t going to help you develop a strong grasp of characterization. And yeah, perhaps by writing fanfic you can develop your skills in other aspects of writing – but you can do so equally well by writing your own original material.

As for the reading side of things, I just don’t get it. I don’t have enough time to read all the ‘proper’ books I’ve got sitting on my living room table, let alone time to trawl through countless poorly-written, ill-conceived fanfic. Furthermore, fanfic isn’t canon – so what’s the point? You’re reading stories about events that – as far as the original creator of the world/characters is concerned – never happened. So why bother? I just can’t see the sense of it.

No matter what angle I look at it, ‘serious’ fanfic just appears to me to be masturbation in prose form.

To be honest, the more I think about it, the less I care about the whole subject. It’s nothing I’m interested in doing myself, and people can do what the hell they want, even with homebrew RPGs perhaps. If it remains harmless, then that’s cool, it’s all part of continuing stories in people’s heads.

EDIT: Book Smugglers point to Cory Doctorow’s old article in praise of fan fiction.

8May

Fan Fiction

George R R Martin writes an absolutely fascinating post on fan fiction.

Okay, it was one incident a long time ago, you may say. Fair enough. Let me bring up a couple other writers, then. Contemporaries of an earlier age, each of whom was known by a set of initials: ERB and HPL. ERB created Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. HPL created Cthulhu and his Mythos. ERB, and later his estate, was extremely protective of his creations. Try to use Tarzan, or even an ape man who was suspiciously similar to Tarzan, without his/ their permission, and their lawyers would famously descend on you like a ton of bricks. HPL was the complete opposite. The Cthulhu Mythos soon turned into one of our genres first shared worlds. HPL encouraged writer friends like Robert Bloch and Clark Ashton Smith to borrow elements from his Cuthulhu Mythos, and to add elements as well, which HPL himself would borrow in turn. And in time, other writers who were NOT friends of HPL also began to write Cthulhu Mythos stories, which continues to this day.

Fair enough. Two writers, two different decisions.

Thing is, ERB died a millionaire many times over, living on a gigantic ranch in a town that was named Tarzana after his creation. HPL lived and died in genteel poverty, and some biographers have suggested that poor diet brought on by poverty may have hastened his death. HPL was a far more beloved figure amongst other writers, but love will only get you so far. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to have a steak too. The Burroughs estate was paid handsomely for every Tarzan movie ever made, and collected plenty on the PRINCESS OF MARS movie I worked on during my Hollywood years, and no doubt is still collecting on the one currently in development… though the book is in the public domain by now. Did the Lovecraft estate make a penny off THE DUNWICH HORROR movie, the HERBERT WEST, REANIMATOR movie, the recent DAGON movie, the internet version of CALL OF CTHULHU? I don’t know. I rather doubt it. If they did, I’ll betcha it was just chump change. Meanwhile, new writers go right on mining the Cthulhu mythos, writing new stories and novels.

I’ve written before on the merits of tie-in fiction, and some people like to point out similarities between the two, but fan fiction is something completely different, as explained in his post. It’s all about the consequences. Martin presents a fascinating argument, and the more I think about it, the more I’m absolutely swayed.

Read the rest.

5May

And While We’re On That Subject…

Mark Chadbourn writes a fine blog post on what it’s like to be a writer in the digital age, compared to sixteen years ago.

The net now is like a city centre pub. You’ve got the group getting drunk and having a laugh. The intense couples ruminating over a glass of claret. And you’ve got the swivel-eyed, shaven-headed men in brown leather jackets at the end of the bar who bellow at anyone who will listen. And they’ve all got an opinion, and they all want to tell you.

This analogy isn’t just about bloggers. It’s about anyone who chimes in with their take on a book – on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Good Reads, wherever. If you’re a writer, it’s nigh on impossible not to hear what people think about your book.

It didn’t use to be like that. You’d get a flurry of print reviews when the book came out, and then silence for months while you worked on the next one. Now they come in a torrent, every week, every day.

Back then, reviews were carefully considered. Today some are still carefully considered. But as in that city centre pub, some are rants, abusive, vitriolic, opinions filtered through prejudices. And that’s how it should be – the net has given people a voice, and it’s up to them what they want to say.

Read it. I think it’s very important.

Also, I think you good blog reviewers (those who write the more considered reviews) have a opportunity to change things, to a degree – to cut and paste the fine work you do, and promote it to the widest audience possible, be it Amazon, forums, Goodreads, B&N, Waterstone’s reviews etc. (I know some of you do, which is fantastic.)

Why? The more you show how things should be done, the more others might – might! – be forced to consider what is typed before venom is injected into the computer. At the very least, the insane barking will be drowned out. Standards might be raised, but it needs a lot of bloggers to do this before we see any improvements. Or I might just be being hopelessly optimistic?

4May

Writers And The Internet

Can the author survive the internet?

James Wood was somewhat less pleased with the “vituperation” he associates with the blogosphere (though Wood himself, it must be said, has been no shrinking violet when it comes to dispatching the pretensions of what he has dubbed the “hysterical realist” school of fiction). He said he finds looking through readers’ comments on blogs to be akin to a descent into Hades. He added that his friend Andrew Sullivan is buckling under the strain of writing three hundred blog posts per week, which has interfered with his ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few paragraphs. According to Wood, one of the Internet’s longest-serving and most prolific bloggers could even be about to call it a day as a result. (Contacted by The Daily Beast after the debate, Sullivan replied that “I have felt that way for five years and I’m still blogging!” He confirmed, however, that he had indeed considered calling it quits recently but would persevere if he could get an extra staffer.)

The poor darlings. It must be terribly difficult for writers of Literature to finally have to answer to readers now, in addition to critics who may or may not go to the same dinner parties.

I guess this is where the SFF community has been for several years, if not decades. The history of fandom is one where authors have engaged in a dialogue with readers, to some extent. And it’s one reason I think the blogosphere is a good thing: it has devolved power of opinion from a few gatekeepers, to the many. There certainly doesn’t seem to be as much rigour of analysis in reviews as there used to be with the early blogs, whose competition then was the established quality e-zines. Now, anything passes for a review, even a rough synopsis. Things are often reduced these days merely to “I did / did not like this book”, which is a loss to the genre). And the author experience differs – there is so much more discussion of their works, but more of it is emotional gut responses, rather than a full-on engagement, for better or worse. Now, a year’s work can be reduced to “ZOMG you suck”. These reactions existed previously, but now they’re digital, and for the world and the author to see.

With great power comes great responsibility – little do online commentators realise how fragile creative egos can be. You might chuckle, but to some, a damaging comment can prevent a writer from doing his or her job properly. Some might crumble for a week, who’s to say? I’ve been pretty lucky, but I cringe at reading scathing reviews of other authors’ work. So whilst I was full of snark at the start of this post, I do actually understand how such things can harm writers. And yes, some writers really do care about what people think of their work. Yes, they receive Google Alerts about the fruit of their labours. Surely that’s a good thing, that they give a shit? I suppose if you’re the kind of person who enjoys attacking creative works for kicks, then you need a little more help than this blog post can offer.

My opinion to new writers: all you can do is develop a thick skin very quickly, and deal with it. (And, ironically, be concerned about the amount of coverage, rather than its quality.)

We are now entering, what, phase three or four of the blogosphere (so many blogs have come and gone), and it’s interesting to see so clearly that tribes and cliques are forming, people linking only to few others, talking only to few others, and so on. Is this bad? Not inherently, of course, it’s natural; but cliques were always one of the reasons that new fans do not fully immerse themselves in the convention world – does the same apply digitally, I wonder? Just a thought.

Also, authors online are given platforms to reply to reviewers and comments. Personally, I think writers should respond – not necessarily to their own reviews, but certainly to address specific problems they feel exists in online coverage. Why not? There are few rules for current online etiquette. There’s nothing to stop an author reviewing why a blog does or does not work, right?

I guess this post doesn’t contain all that much flow; it’s more of a bunch of thoughts to be honest. I think it’s interesting to watch some genres still playing catch-up on this subject of the blogosphere, whilst SFF is developing into newer modes of connectivity.

26Apr

Darkness On The Edge

This weekend, the postman brought me this:

Here is a photo of my story, “Devil’s Arcade” (which I’m delighted is the final one in the collection):

And here it is, safely in its case:

This is Darkness on the Edge, from renowned small press PS Publishing.

Creativity is something like magic. One form might feed the other, providing inspiration, sparking ideas, fueling the creative juices. For the authors contained within this unique anthology, the source of inspiration was the music of Bruce Springsteen. Themes, lines, song titles . . . whatever it took to draw these stories into life.

So many of Springsteen’s songs bring you close to the edge of a darkness where uncertainty reigns – a darkness not just on the edge of town but of our hearts and minds . . . the darkness between child and adulthood, perhaps; or between courage and fear; marriage and divorce; even confidence and self-doubt. These nineteen authors nudge us closer to an answer . . . and let us see what really is stirring out there in the shadows.

I don’t often write short stories, because I don’t often get the opportunity, but I love the chance to handle something different, flex the writerly muscles, and try to prove I’m not a one-trick pony. A big fan of Springtsteen, when I heard about this anthology, I just had to send in an entry and, at the time of writing, I had no deal with Tor UK, which for some reason makes it especially nice that the story was accepted.

Basically, the brief was to expand or be inspired by one of the Boss’s songs, and take that into the short story medium, which I guess is a more exotic form of tie-in fiction. For those of you who are interested, the song I chose as inspiration was Devil’s Arcade.

24Apr

School Daze

I don’t like to comment on the day job – mainly because I like to keep it distant from the writing career – but I did something rather fun yesterday. Three of us from work went into a secondary school, to try and enthuse a Year 7 class (12 year olds, to American readers) about writing and reading. Quite a tough mission indeed, especially since I’ve never done anything like this before.

Our plan was basically to inspire them, and to get them engaging with stories. So with around 30 or so students, we set to work. The plan was to get them thinking about characters as the starting point – we discussed as a group our favourite characters from film or TV, as a bit of an ice breaker (I’m surprised how popular the Simpsons is after all these years).

Then, we split them into three groups, and each were shown a huge poster of a SF/F artwork that featured a character. They had to describe who they thought the person was from what they look liked, and to make up other stuff around that (what were their likes/dislikes, were they angry/kind etc.) writing it all down, then presenting it to the rest of the class. Next, back in groups, they built a story for their character, and came up with all sorts of whacky stuff which was again presented to the rest of the class. Finally, they ebbed away to write the first few paragraphs of that story, leaving me in a state of happy exhaustion, though a bit of a daze.

I’m pretty sure the whole morning (three hours of this) was a success. We took them through the whole process of thinking up a character and telling their story. That’s the basic tools for the job.

I was amazed by the imaginative power of some of these kids. They had no problem with thinking up bizarre concepts. They had a limitless imagination, and this was hugely pleasing, because adults can be quite jaded about all of this stuff. Many adults just don’t seem to be able to think of secondary world concepts and characters; as if there’s some mental barrier that stops them acknowledging otherness. I guess when you’re at an age where the world is approached with a fresh, open mind, it’s easier to accept the weird.

I was happy to help out with the school – it’s fundamentally great to enthuse younger readers about literature, and by the end, they were assiduously creating stories, so we couldn’t ask for more than that. Hopefully there will be some future SFF writers to come from this, you never know. Sometimes, at the business end of this industry, you forget just how useful it is – how utterly important it is – that people are simply excited about literature.

And what topped it all off was my first school lunch in over a decade. The rice pudding was a vast improvement on how I remembered these things to be.

20Apr

Enter, Stranger…

Oh, Knightmare was so good. And people say nothing useful happened in 1990s (apart from Thatcher’s downfall). If they ever brought this back I would die with giddiness, although if Brian Blessed was not crowbarred into it somehow I’d be emailing someone every hour to complain.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMqWizbXi6Q]

Knightmare was a real innovator, and I wonder how many other British kids it brought into the fantasy genre. Were you Americans fortunate enough to see this show? Wouldn’t Tregard have been the most awesome uncle. Whatever happened to him, anyway?

Now let’s watch the contestants die. Spell-casting: “T-H-I-C-K-S-H-I-T-S”

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qveSczrl9HY]

I even owned the Choose Your Own Adventure game-books, which tied-in to the show. I think I still have them somewhere.

19Apr

More Recent Reading

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay is a brilliant book. It’s huge – in themes, in scope, and in sheer fun. I’m not going to review it, but I wanted to at least tell people they should read it. The book follows the lives of two cousins. One is a Czech artist called Joe Kavalier (also trained as an escape artist), and Sam Clay, raised in Brooklyn. It’s set mainly in the years leading up to the Second World War, where the cousins become major comic writers as the industry enters the Golden Age. I love the themes of escape that prop up this beast of a novel (Kavalier, who is trained as an escape artist, escapes his homeland because of the build up to WWII, and who then seeks to help his family escape). Chabon, whilst not quite as stylish as Letham at his best, certainly knows his way around a sentence, too.

Then, onto C. L. Moore, the first lady of weird fantasy. I read the collection Black Gods And Scarlet Dreams, the Masterworks edition, and even in the first story, I could see it contained more imaginative power than a lot of this year’s combined fantasy output. My initial excitement wavered a little after that, for there were endless descriptions of psychological reaction, of emotion, of fear, of abstract shapes and entities. And I’m all for a little exposition, but some of this was way beyond heady. I admit I stopped halfway, after the adventures of Jirel of Joiry – a hugely important character in genre taxonomy, because she was the first proper female warrior/lead. I was impressed: Jirel was utterly non-sexualised, not made into some leather-clad male fetish – she was properly hard as nails, the equal of any male warrior.

I’m now half-way through a bound manuscript of Kraken, by one China Miéville. (I should say here how wonderful my publicist and editor are for supplying me with a copy.) About a hundred pages in and by god it’s good fun.

After that, I’m hoping to escape core genre for a bit. Possibly, I’ll read some John Cowper Powys, though I’m not hugely knowledgeable on some of his output. I very much enjoyed Wolf Solent – which was written in the style of a horny Thomas Hardy on speed. JCP’s books look intimidatingly big, so if anyone out there knows of some of the smaller tomes, suggestions would be welcome. I found some available on Faber Finds, their Print on Demand range, but I’m not forking out £15 for a copy.

16Apr

Minority SFF

Tor.com has an article on queer SFF.

There seemed to be a common theme in the discussion of people’s first queer SFF: it wasn’t found intentionally. It was found by accident, by word of mouth, by luck. That got me thinking about the ways in which I search for new books to read. In turn, that made me think about how hard queer SFF can be to find sometimes, especially when you’re just browsing by shelves in a store. Why is that? Flap copy tends to be one problem—I can’t claim to be the most thorough researcher in the world, but once I had the thought, I read over the backs/inside flaps of all the queer SFF books I own and that are in the bookstore I work for. You would be surprised (or perhaps not) at exactly how few of them bother to mention the sexualities or gender differences within the text, even when they are the driving force of the plot. Examples follow below the cut

It’s a very interesting read, though, on a minor point, I don’t agree with is the assumptions on publishers and labelling. If publishers didn’t want to publish fiction with LGBT characters in it, they wouldn’t; so to suggest they’re hiding things seems to miss the point a touch.

Also, my book does indeed get a mention lower down.

I’m looking forward to reading Nights of Villjamur after reading a review for it there that focused—but didn’t overfocus—on the sexuality of the lead.

I’d always tried to keep that gay character closeted until the reader makes the discovery for themselves, and I treated the whole thing totally matter-of-factly. He isn’t camp, he isn’t some handbag fag-hag accessory, he isn’t a bad dude. He’s just himself. City of Ruin sees me make more of a deal of the issue. Book three, I’m trying to explore a transgender character – which is an altogether more difficult a subject. But I’m trying.

I like that Villjamur is – and with other novels – is being noticed for at least trying to do something here. A cultural hangover, perhaps, but the amount of gay/gender stereotyping (or even completely ignoring – and going against statistics – the presence of such people) in novels still amazes me. For straight folk (isn’t our party line, like, we have friends who are gay?) to throw in our contribution, well – I guess every little helps, right? I’m not perfect at this by any means, and I’m always going to try improving my fiction in this way.

I guess this is wondering out loud rather than a constructed argument, but why don’t more majority writers (for example, straight and white) try to write about minority characters? Not merely sexuality, but even race? (Because you can even divide it down the species line in SFF.)

Is it a simple case of comfort zones and familiarity? Because I really don’t buy ignorance as a reasonable excuse. There are still vast swathes of society who don’t see eye-to-eye with our equality laws, so do writers have a responsibility to help move things along, or is this too wild a claim? To be honest, I’d say the more popular a writer becomes, the more of an ethical sin it is to ignore these issues.

With great power, n’all that.

13Apr

Resurrecting The Dying Earth

Originally, this article appeared in slightly different formats on Speculative Horizons, and later on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog as a guest post. I’ve many more readers than I had last year, so wanted to share what is one of my favourite sub-genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

You can’t move in Hollywood for people clutching screenplays about the apocalypse. If you’re in a café out there there’s probably someone writing one next to you right now. These days there’s some kind of cinematographer’s fetish for destroying landmark buildings and tearing up natural monuments. So maybe because of this rise in the popularity of post-apocalyptic media, or because a younger genre audience might have little knowledge of the fictions of yesteryear, I wanted to write a little more about the Dying Earth genre.

There are plenty of stories about the Earth being gutted, but the Dying Earth is something quite different, and it deserves more attention. Although I’m not concerned with the business of genre taxonomy here, and nor do I want to pursue the aesthetics of an academic essay, there are a few things worth noting that sets the Dying Earth genre apart, and a few key texts to explore. So here are some initial observations for the uninitiated, and some Memory Lane fodder for the rest of you.

The setting for Dying Earth novels is consciously towards the end of time, not merely after any major event. In fact there’s a good chance several such events might have happened – we could be so far into the future we can’t possibly tell. The world as we know it is unrecognizable. As a result, there is perhaps a melancholy associated with the genre – a conscious reflection at how great things once were. There seems to be a sense of fatality that seems bound in writing about the far future. Dying Earth fictions are inherently fantastical. Call it science fantasy if you must, the genre certainly feels like more of a fantasy than it does science fiction. There’s a mix of technology in there, too – the fantasy isn’t merely limited to magic, and the magic is sometimes intended to have some kind of justification, often through a spurious science. Dying Earth settings are very much secondary worlds, and by that I mean there is less of a reliance on current realities for the infrastructure of the book. Gene Wolfe alludes to South America in his Book of the New Sun sequence (which I’ll mention later), but we know that his Urth is a different place entirely.

So, some key books.

People point towards H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as one of the origin novels. Later, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, set on Earth’s last continent, began crystallizing the genre. Published in the 1930s, they were some of the first works to explore the cycles of cultures moving forward into a deeply unrecognizable fantasy future.

But we most likely didn’t start recognising the genre as such until a certain Jack Vance (influenced by Smith) wrote his Tales of the Dying Earth.

Finally we had a name for this thing. Some of these earliest stories were first published in the 1950s, and upon first reading are a surreal and heady collection of images. Cugel’s Saga is often seen as the most popular of the later works, first published in 1983, but Vance’s wit and dynamic style proved intoxicating, and the stories became iconic. For more detail, check out The Wertzone’s review.

The power of Vance is very much apparent. Recently there was an anthology released called Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, which was a tribute to Vance’s novels. It gave a boost to the old master’s works, and plenty of Big Named Writers wanted to play in Vance’s toy box.

Gene Wolfe, influenced by Vance, wrote what is commonly thought to be one of the high points of Twentieth Century science fiction and fantasy – fuck that, of any literature. His original quartet was called The Book of the New Sun, and was laced with mythical and biblical imagery, and more symbols than you can shake at Aleister Crowley. The tales of Severian the torturer and his journey are established classics, and cannot be done any justice in a pithy paragraph.

Larry’s collection of in-depth postings on the series is one of the best studies of these books online.

Out of the Dying Earth subgenre, one of my favourites is M John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence. In fact, I made a conscious nod of the respect in my title to one of the books, Viriconium Nights / Nights of Villjamur. These stories are almost anti-fantasies. The city of Viriconium changes consciously (even its name to Uriconium), deliberately avoiding the ability to be mapped. The world possesses the technological litter from thousands of cultures previously. It is a bleak vision, but spellbindingly surreal and with a beautiful and complex prose, and there’s something very English underneath it all, which sets it apart. This is not a literature of comfort, and it requires more than a couple of readings to discover the treats within. These stories have been divisive amongst the SFF community, people either love them or loathe them. See the Westeros forum.

There are many other books and series that will fall under this category, and if anyone wants to add to my reading list, please feel free in the comments section. I merely wanted to outline a few of the major works. And maybe in writing this, a few readers might go and order some of these wonderful books.

Specifying what it is about these books that appeal to me as a writer proves rather difficult. Perhaps it’s their melancholy fatalism: these settings all possess a vastly different psychogeography from other fantasies. Perhaps it’s the fact that the setting opens up more options – that the literature has more freedoms, more potential for meaning than a setting that reflects backwards.

It’s worth adding that none of these books would likely be published as new novels in the modern era by conglomerates. Publishing tastes and sensibilities change by the year, of course, and commercial pressures are vastly different now than they were then – for better or worse.

This fan boy recognises this, probably wouldn’t have been published unless he did, but I’ve made scattered references to these stories throughout Villjamur, in a few structure names, or the colour of a cloak, all out of respect for what’s gone before.

In trying to help resurrect the Dying Earth subgenre, and put a distinctly modern spin on things, I may well be standing on the shoulders of giants, and that may well be ambitiously stupid. However it’s difficult to resist the allure, because the view at the end of time is amazing.