Travellers: In Fantasy Fiction vs Reality

Some interesting debate came in the comments of my post on antiziganism, with respect to the generally positive depiction of travellers/gypsies in fantasy fiction versus how they are perceived in reality. I thought it worthwhile highlighting some of the key points.

Eric wrote:

Certainly they are frequent visitors to its pages: the tinkers in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the strange dwarfs (some of them made in the eerie ‘gloottokoma’ boxes rather than born), fortune telling Mams, and brightly painted caravans of the Mingulay Peninsula from M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, Philip Pullman’s Gyptians from His Dark Materials, the Edema Ruh of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and even, a bit tangentially, the wandering rangers of Tolkien, to name a handful that spring to mind… With the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula however, in almost all of the examples that I can recall, travelers are portrayed sympathetically. They are typically allies or at least benign presences who help, shelter, give advice or direction to the “heroes.” I can’t think of many who are shown to be sinister or in the employ of the titular dark lord… Even if they are shown to have a reputation as thieves and dishonest traders in knives and horses, in the stories themselves, they almost always have hearts of gold hidden beneath their dark looks and bright scarves.

I replied:

Beneath it all, I suspect that it can be reduced to simple capitalist concepts such as ownership – in the real world, it seems to mean something that nomads occupy a space and turn it into a temporary autonomous zone. The act is seen as bad, because it affects us personally. In a fantasy world, we feel no such affinity to the land. We do not own property there, and beyond the page we do not possess rights. A classic case of nimbyism if ever there was one.

Eric responded:

In fantasy, the situation seems to be reversed. Travelers are romanticized for all the same qualities they’re vilified over in real life: freedom from urban lifestyles, ignorance of private land use, picturesque pre-industrial occupations, colorful dress, exotic customs, tight-knit family/tribal communities, roguish disregard for local authorities, and the ability to up stakes and move on when things go against them or greener pastures beckon. They also don’t go to the law of the land to seek redress, nor do they have much faith in its protection. As Mark has pointed out, it’s not our land, so we don’t have the same emotional attachment. Add in a whiff of mysticism and stir in some pseudo-eastern girls (and boys) fluttering their dark lashes, and I can see why they’re popular in fantasy settings.

Jared added:

There are a lot of Gypsy, Traveler-Types singled out as noble liberated folk (the Edema Ruh are spot on when it comes to flamboyantly unrealistic depictions of life on the road. Tra la la, we sing, everyone loves us and we’re filled with ageless wisdom, tra la la.).

BUT… in the generic, I’m betting that (lower-case) gypsy-types are baddies.

If you need your high fantasy hero threatened in the early chapters, there are always lawless / landless / roving thugs to do it.

When it comes down to it, generic fantasy is rooted in a lot of very traditional ideas. One of which is that national identity is Vastly Important and Unchanging. People are Countryians from Country, and that’s their key defining trait.

I’m sure it harkens back to the quasi-medieval origins of the genre, but, whatever, I’m betting it is there.

As you can see, quite an interesting discussion. It’s an area which, on the surface, suggests that fantasy words are quite different – at a very basic, concept level – from the real one, which I’ll admit is the opposite of my personal approach to creating a world.

Does anyone have any further thoughts or examples on this topic? I’m trying to think if there are similar associations to make between this and, for example, issues of race. That is, do many fantasy novels – which, at their heart are novels of escape – avoid addressing real-world cultural confrontations? Do many writers intentionally view such matters quixotically? Is there even anything wrong with that?


Marrow & Whisky Chutney

Marrow from my garden. Whisky from Macallan (I didn’t want to waste anything nice and peaty in this.) Yes, it tastes delicious.

At FantasyCon this weekend, the first thing Peter F. Hamilton mentioned was my Plum Jam, so I’m increasingly convinced there’s an underground grow-your-own / make-your-own movement in genre circles. It’s the future: get those winter crops in.


Tor UK & Alt.Fiction Present: Other Worlds – Saturday 6th November

I’ve just got the itinerary from event organiser, Alex Davis. Should be a pretty good show, this – Tor UK and Alt.Fiction are teaming up, which is a great idea – proper community stuff from a publisher, panels and workshops and open conversations. It’s much more focussed than a convention, and I think it’s aimed at those who want to write, and perhaps at those who don’t normally make it to longer conventions. I’m doing a workshop, and I promise not to mention vegetable gardening or jam making or the environment.

Other Worlds offers panel discussions, giveaways and signings and is an ideal event for both readers and writers of science-fiction and fantasy. Authors appearing include the UK’s best-selling SF author PETER F HAMILTON, Shadows of the Apt writer ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY, rising fantasy star MARK CHARAN NEWTON and author of the Recursion trilogy TONY BALLANTYNE.

Workshop Sessions: Tickets cost £3 each.
11am-12pm Fantasy workshop with Mark Charan Newton
11am-12pm Sci-fi workshop with Tony Ballantyne

These will take place in The Box and the Meeting Room at QUAD.

Other Worlds: Tickets cost £8/£6 concessions
1pm-1:45pm Panel: Other Worlds – The landscape of SF and Fantasy with Peter F Hamilton, Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tony Ballantyne (Cinema 2)
1:45pm-2pm Break
2pm-2:45pm Science-fiction discussion with Peter F Hamilton and Tony Ballantyne (Cinema 2)
2pm-2:45pm Fantasy discussion with Mark Charan Newton and Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Box)
2:45pm-3pm Break
3pm-4pm Signing with Peter F Hamilton, Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tony Ballantyne (The Box)

Books available to buy on the day from 12pm.

Derby Quad, Market Place, Derby.
Saturday 6th November. The Workshops (£3) are from 11am-12pm, and the main event (£8/6) is 1pm-4pm
Tickets from QUAD box office on 01332 290606 or at www.derbyquad.co.uk



Reading all the headlines that surround France’s hostility to, and deportation of, Roma gypsies, I remembered this excellent article in the Guardian from a few years ago:

Imagine an English village building an effigy of a car, with caricatures of black people in the windows and the number plate “N1GGER”, and burning it in a public ceremony. Then imagine one of Britain’s most socially conscious MPs appearing to suggest that black people were partly to blame for the way they had been portrayed.

It is, or so we should hope, unimaginable. But something very much like it happened last week. The good burghers of Firle, in Sussex, built a mock caravan, painted a Gypsy family in the windows, added the numberplate “P1KEY” (a derogatory name for Gypsies which derives from the turnpike roads they travelled) and the words “Do As You Likey Driveways Ltd – guaranteed to rip you off”, then metaphorically purged themselves of this community by incinerating it. Their MP, the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, later told BBC South East that “there is an issue about the rights of travellers which has to be respected, but also the duty’s on travellers to ensure that they treat the areas in which they are living with respect … That did not happen in Firle earlier this year which is why the Bonfire Society has taken the act that they have.”

Racism towards Gypsies is acceptable in public life in Britain. Last month the Now Show on Radio 4 satirised “pikeys” running fairgrounds “with no safety documents”. It would surely never crack jokes about “pakis” or “yids”, or suggest that members of another ethnic group typically engage in dodgy business practices. When Jack Straw was home secretary he characterised Gypsies as people who “think that it’s perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of other trouble including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on”.

Read the rest if you have a few moments. It’s extremely enlightening, and also sad to see antiziganism hitting the headlines yet again, though not surprising – the rise (and disguise) of far-right politics is perhaps a symptom of the economic crisis.


Culling Science

I doubt many of you will be interested in this. Defra has announced that it has plans for a badger cull in an effort to combat Bovine TB:

Defra is consulting on a proposal to issue licences to farmers and landowners who wish to cull and/or vaccinate badgers at their own expense. These licences would be subject to strict licence criteria to ensure badger control is done effectively, humanely and with high regard for animal welfare.

The following misleading statement is brought to you by James Paice MP, a man comes from the farming industry, who has (just for a little context) voted against equal gay rights, for the Iraq war, and who has voted strongly against a hunting ban:

No single measure will be enough to tackle the disease on its own. But the science is clear: there is no doubt that badgers are a significant reservoir for the disease and without taking action to control the disease in them, it will continue to spread. No country in the world has eradicated bovine TB without dealing with the reservoir in wildlife. That’s why I’m today launching a consultation on how we can tackle the disease in badgers.

The science is clear is it? Like this science: badger culls failed to halt spread of TB, according to a large survey from Imperial College and the Zoological Society of London. And after a huge nine year survey, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded: “badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.” Not to mention small facts such as Scotland is TB-free without resorting to any action against badgers.

The upshot of such reports were that for a cull to be successful, badgers would need to be exterminated completely, and The application of what the government proposes is hazy at best.

Farming is not nature, though it works with and sometimes against it. Modern agricultural processes are factories without walls or ceilings (this is a statement without agenda – countryside in the UK is mostly not natural). The spread of Bovine TB costs £63million and affects 25,000 cows. It is a problem and needs to be addressed, but preferably in a way that is shown to be effective, rather than wasting taxpayers’ money on something that science has shown to be ambiguous at best. Where will it stop – on deer, squirrels, or perhaps slaughtering the farm cats? Perhaps they plan more entertaining ways of dealing with the matter, such as using jam sandwiches.

Whether or not one cares about nature here isn’t quite the point. It comes as no surprise that a farming minster, one who is deeply conservative, seeks to start a war against nature, but to abuse the science to satisfy the whims of a particular lobby group is always a cause for concern.

Then again, Tories tried and still do use the logic of science when it comes to fox hunting, but are completely wrong, as any ecologist would tell you. Dear Tories: if you want to murder animals because you like the feel of blood on your hands, at least have the decency to be honest about it – don’t slaughter the science as well and mask it as some noble undertaking.

While I’m ranting about the environment, at least the Department for Energy and Climate Change is going about things correctly with respect to reducing carbon emissions. I like that Chris Huhne has essentially said no to building more nuclear power stations, by saying that it’s up to private companies to fund them. Not one nuclear power station in the world operates without government subsidies of some kind.


Old Bloggers’ Retirement Home

Pat’s debating giving up SFF blogging:

After 6 years, a couple of millions of visitors from over 100 countries, 263 book reviews and counting, many fun and interesting interviews, and countless giveaways and related SFF material, maybe it’s time to hang ’em up. . .

It would be sad to see Pat’s blog end. I paid close attention to the blogosphere over the years, from my days setting up Solaris. I’ve seen so many reviewers come and go. Back then, it was easy to see the potential. We were a smallish publisher who relied upon people power, since we couldn’t afford massive marketing campaigns or to spend thousands of pounds on advertising. Without getting too quixotic, I liked to think of blogging as a bit of a grassroots literary community. It was about a few people who loved the genre and loved talking about it, who did not have an agenda. More importantly, it was not influenced by publishers – they were busy courting print reviewers. At Solaris then, we wanted to be part of that debate. We happened to be fans in a good place – fans in charge of an imprint. There existed a mere handful of bloggers, not many more. As editors, we got to talk to most of them, got to know them a little too. To chat about books with others was a wonderful job.

The difference these days? As I said on Twitter:

I think the difference in book blogging is that 4 years ago publishers ignored you. Now they realise you can make them money.

Whether you like it or not, bloggers, all publishers now want to make money from you. Whenever you mention their books, there is a chance they will sell more copies. While for the most part publishers love being in the community and probably would anyway (don’t forget, many are geeks too), it’s also ridiculously simple to see the awkward corporations blunder about to focus debate in their court (they’re the ones that use terms like “networking” and “building communities”). They started to realise this potential only a couple of years ago, and who can blame them for trying to get you on their side? Their business depends upon it. Margins are tight. Supermarkets are screwing them for discount. Life is tough on the frontline. So free books started being sent out to bloggers – to this new reviewing middle-class, in order to monopolise word-of-mouth publicity. And more people realised they could join the debate and start their own blog. Some did it for the free stuff, and they kind of fell away quickly because they couldn’t keep up with the sheer volume of demand from publishers.

Why I am waffling on like an old man? I don’t know. Twitter was abuzz last night with people commenting that the community wasn’t what it used to be, and that there was a growing distance, even growing rudeness. Also, people seem to find it increasingly difficult to find things to talk about, and I understand that.

Some random thoughts on those points:

1) You are not a slave to your blog. If you want to talk about other things, then that is perfectly fine. I’ve had stacks of people contact me in one way or another to say they’re glad I talk about other stuff – politics or the environment. There’s a whole world out there, and if you ignore it constantly then you’ll become tired of blogging. Also, it’s a helpful reality check. We do quite often blog in a bubble.

2) Don’t worry about hits. When you start worrying about hits, you’re not doing it for the love of reading. You’re doing it for the attention, and these days, you’ll likely be disappointed – because there is more white noise out there than ever before. You will possibly never achieve the level of hits Pat achieved – because he got there early and maintained it solidly for years.

I suspect the blogosphere is having another growth spurt. Soon it’ll settle down again, and cliques and niches will form naturally, but I’m afraid it still won’t be that cosy little place of a few years back.


The Best Soundtracks For Writing

Listening to music helps the process of writing, but sometimes it’s better not to have anything featuring lyrics. Words being hollered in my ears interferes with my creative juices. I do not want to hear Lady Gaga warbling her kitsch electropop when I’m getting to a crucial scene. Likewise I do not need Tom Waits’s whisky-soaked grumbling when I’m striving to write something epic. Thus the humble soundtrack is often required. Since you’ve all probably exhausted your Lord of the Rings boxset, and the notes of Gladiator can be recalled from memory. I’m assuming you have the staples, such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Here are some other interesting soundtracks to provide that necessary background ambience without having to resort to pan-pipes (you know the shit I mean).

The Fountain: terribly dull film, but a tender, thoughtful and precise soundtrack. Useful for scenes of complex dinners-for-two, mental breakdowns, or moody walking-the-streets stuff.

Centurion: never seen the film, never likely to. This occasionally sails so close to Gladiator territory that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit – but the soundtrack is definitely epic. Good for scenes of sword-clashing nonsense or general brooding military tough stuff.

Johnny Depp always seems to choose his films well, doesn’t he? I loved From Hell, and the soundtrack is suitably dark to fulfil all the fantasy writer’s macabre ambience. Recommended for scenes of torture or for when someone is bleeding to death.

Halo 3: ODST. What? Not a film? Yeah, I know, but game soundtracks are getting as good as film scores. I’ve never played the game either, and I actually think that helps me enjoy it merely for musical qualities. Here are some great minimalist electronic riffs, mixed with patches of epic science fictional orchestral soundscapes. Good for behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty, or marching along the corridors of a spaceship.

28 Weeks Later. A cracking film, and a fine soundtrack – it’s got moments of tension and introspection, with all the accoutrements needed for a post-apocalytpic type ambience. Suitable for scenes of brain-eating.

Rome, the HBO series. I’ve never seen this. It’s not for any reason other than I’ve been writing nearly every evening of the year. Here are all your historical flavours in one album – not so much the violence, but the kind of gentle two-chaps/ladies going from A to B filler malarkey that you often need to write.

The Dark Knight. In the future, all soundtracks, if not all sounds, will be made by Hans Zimmer. I could have picked any number of his works: Inception, The Last Samurai, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Sherlock Holmes. But this is one of my favourites – for sheer intensity, for the way it really infects your mind. Recommended for anything with tension or city-traversing chase scenes.

So there you go. Now there is no excuse to complete your SF or Fantasy novel. Have I missed anything crucial?



People blog, so I don’t have to.

First, James at Speculative Horizons declares that reviewers should post their reviews to Amazon:

So many books are bought online these days, yet the standard of customer reviews is shocking (did anyone from Amazon even check this review? Doesn’t look like it). Sure, I imagine it must be tough moderating so many reviews, but if you’re going to do it then it should be done properly. Permitting people to post 5-star reviews of a book’s physical properties is a joke. There are all sorts of horror stories from people who bought a book as a result of dreadful (or even fake) reviews.

This is why I now post all my reviews on Amazon, and why I think all reviewers and serious readers should do the same. It’s important to try and drive up the quality of the reviews available. If each new release has four or five well-written reviews attached to it from prominent members of the online genre community (or from anyone that can write a considered review), then it’s offering consumers a far better idea of what to expect from the product.

And I agree. Change can only come when people get involved, and all levels of input can really help raise standards, or at the very least filter out the crap.

William Burroughs wrote a graphic novel:

A quest for immortality, the Mayan Death God and a billionaire newspaper tycoon: William Burroughs’s only venture into graphic novels, abandoned almost 40 years ago, is set to be published in its entirety for the first time next year.

The Naked Lunch author began work on Ah Pook Is Here with artist Malcolm McNeill in 1970, when the story appeared as a monthly comic strip in the English magazine Cyclops. After the magazine folded, they worked to develop the concept into into a full-length book, which they dubbed a “Word/Image novel” because the term graphic novel had yet to be coined. But no publisher was interested, and after working on the book for seven years the pair eventually abandoned it.

People are surprised that James Patterson, otherwise known as a book factory of co-writers, is one of the most successful authors of recent times:

James Patterson is the biggest “bride” of the UK book world. According an analysis of Nielsen BookScan charts since records began in 1998, the American author has penned the most chart-toppers, ahead of Danielle Steel in second place, Patricia Cornwell in third and Terry Pratchett in fourth.


Plum Jam

My parents dropped off a couple of kilos of plums from my step-grandmother’s garden. So we turned them into this.

Remarkably simple to make, very cheap and hugely satisfying. Just plums, sugar and water. Did I mention it was delicious?

Scones for tea tonight, which will go very well with combing through the first draft of book three. Incidentally, we should soon have the cover for this one. For those of you who loathe figures on the front, you’ll likely not be happy, but there’s no pleasing everyone.


Slightly Updated Cover

As you can see, even though it’s subtle, I think it’s a big improvement on the old cover for City of Ruin, which I’ve posted below so you can see the difference.

It was made darker once the designer had the final high res artwork, and also Brynd is more integrated into the image. There will be silver foiling on the title. I’m much happier with this – even though I liked the original. The images now enlarge so all you art geeks can really see the detail.