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Pre-Post: Fantasy Counterparts Cultures

So,  I promised a post yesterday on the challenges and responses to the challenges of creating unique new cultures for fantasy worlds.  But as I was writing my draft, I realized I needed to talk about something else first.  You see that post was going to be a response to a common trend in fantasy and what I dislike about it.  So I realized I should probably go into that trend, what it is, what I don’t like, and what it does do well.  On that note:

 

One of the most common criticisms of is that so much high and epic fantasy is just a pseudo-medieval European setting, with actually quite a few historical simplifications and misunderstandings.  Not least of which is because “Medieval” relates to a span of approximately 1000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire in approximately 500 AD to the start of of early modern age in approximately 1500.  These dates are rough generalizations, no need to nitpick.  My point is that it was a long and complex period over a broad swath of territory, the complexity of which is generally crushed down to knights and feudalism and chivalry.  (There has been subversion and counter-exampling of this trope throughout the history of fantasy, but overall, this generalization holds mostly true.)

In order to combat this issue, people began to make more of an effort to use alternate settings than they had in the past.  Different cultures and mythologies were incorporated into fantasies in an attempt to ride the wave of pushback against this trope.  Which led to the rise of a new over-used trope: Fantasy Counterpart Cultures.  (Evil lurks here!)  If you don’t want to get lost in the wasteland of TVTropes, this is basically when a for-all-intents-and-purposes real world culture is has the serial numbers sanded off in order to become a semi-consistent “new” culture in a fantasy setting.  Most commonly seen with Rome, China, and Japan.  Occasionally Egypt and Russia.  Making up new cultures, which are both consistent and believable, is pretty hard, I think most would agree.  Why not just give a new coat of paint and some sweet new rims to an old ride from Earth?  People will be able to grok the basics of the culture from prior exposure.

However, there are a few issues with this method.  That prior exposure is likely to be made up of stereotypes, misunderstandings, propaganda, and even occasionally  down-right racism.  You might think you know all about pharaohs and chariots, but did you know that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian?  (You’re reading a blog about fantasy world-building, so you might, actually.)  Most people who aren’t history majors probably don’t.  (Did you know bushido was propaganda?)  It can also lead to lazy writing as the author relies too much on reader knowledge to hold together aspects of the story or world.

There are obvious benefits to the method, of course.  You can rely on reader knowledge, take world-building shortcuts.  It’s quicker.  It provides an exotic flavor to the world without info-dumps, flowery prose, and intense research and understanding of the world.  When well-done, it can be enormously appealing to readers.  There’s a great deal of Rule of Cool that can be applied to the story, both because of ignorance of historical facts underpinning the real-world culture that inspires the story and the verisimilitude it provides.  That way, the writer can “concentrate on a good plot” or build in-depth characters without all the hassle of good world-building.  There are outside rules known to everybody which can be exploited for the writer’s benefit.  The shared cultural context, regardless of its accuracy, can be a major driver in interest in the story.

Bushido is pretty cool as an ethic, much like chivalry.  And why not?  It was intended that way.  It allows for a lot of subversion and the creation of moral dilemmas that can provide depth to characters and explain otherwise odd plot developments.  The same for Rome.  The legions were a unique military construct.  The Empire was both inspiring and open to the sort of darkness that makes for good story-yelling.  Same for the Norse Gods.  And good historical fiction is fucking hard to do.  You have to find a story that fits your goals, or fit a story into the ambiguities and cracks in the historical record.  All while doing tons of research.  Or you could just create a “new” country in a fantasy world where that convenient but historically inaccurate river location just happens to exist, while all the other stuff is the same.  Where there’s no inconvenient “fact” to run your perfect plot idea.  After all, it’s just as hard to create a new living, breathing, believable world as it is to fit non-existent plots into our real world.

But, I’d argue, it’s a lot more interesting.  As I’ll discuss in the next post.

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The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.

 

I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.

 

Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.

 

I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.

 

 

Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.

 

*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.

 

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Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.

 

First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.

 

There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.

 

There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Fairytale Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Fairytale Fantasy

Last week, I discussed Near-future SF.  This week, I’m going to talk about a newly re-popularized genre of fantasy: fairytale re-tellings.

Definition:

Fairytale fiction is a sub-genre of speculative that revolves around re-tellings of fairytales in new settings, with new characters, or from the perspective of a previously non-perspective character, and also fairytale style stories.

History

Fairytale retellings have been around for as long as there have been fairytales, but in the past decade or so, they’ve come together as a commercial genre.

Common Tropes and Conventions

The same as those for fairytales: secret royal birth, HEA endings, marriage into a royal family, something dangerous in the nearby woods, etc.

Genre Crossover

Fairytale fiction is unique among fantasy genres for generally having very little crossover.  The specifics of the stories usually preclude it.  It’s certainly possible to create high or epic fantasy out of fairytales, but people usually file off the serial numbers if they do so.

Media

Robin Hood has always been popular in film, and Snow White has just recently received multiple adaptions.  No doubt there will be more in the future.

Future Forecast

Fairytale fiction will no doubt continue to be popular for the near-future.  Although the most popular stories now have four or five major retellings, there are plenty of lesser known stories still awaiting a re-imagining.

Recommendations

1.  Enchanted series by Gail Carson Levine

2.  Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

3.  Beastly by Alex Flinn

4.  Princess series by Jim C. Hines

5.  Rapunzel’s Revenge series by Shannon Hale

6.  Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

7.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

8.  Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey

9.  Beauty by Robin McKinley

10.  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Goodreads list of Fairytale Fantasy

Next week: Cyberpunk

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Near-future SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Near-future SF

Last week, I talked about Portal Fantasy.  This week, I’m going to tackle another tough to categorize genre.

Definition:

Near-future SF is a sub-genre of SF dealing with science fiction stories and concepts just the other side of contemporary.  I’ll limit it to the next fifty years for the purposes of this post.

History

There can be no true history of the genre, since what qualifies changes as time passes.  But the concept originated as a sub-genre in the 90s and grew to its present size and description in the late 2000s.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Besides the fifty-year time frame, there are few major tropes and conventions.  There’s a tendency towards exploration of the solar system, biological advances, punk themes, climate change, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, occasionally fusion reactors and green energy.

Genre Crossover

Near-future SF crosses over with dystopian fiction, Mundane SF, and social science fiction.  It may also share traits with some hard sf.

Media

Near-future SF rarely gets attention in video media, due to its often lack of flashy technology.  It does come up now and again in anime and manga.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a print genre.

Future Forecast

By definition we’re going to have more of this.  The popularity of near-future SF and its related genres has gone up quite a bit since the post-cyberpunk movement and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

Recommendations

1.  Dagmar series by Walter John Williams

2.  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

3.  Halting State by Charles Stross

4.  The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

5.  Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

6.  Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

7.  Air: or Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

8.  India 2047 series by Ian McDonald

9.  Anime: Planetes

10.  Anime: Dennou Coil

Goodreads list of Near-future SF

Check in next time for a discussion of Fairytale Fiction.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Portal Fantasy

Sub-genre of the Week:

Last week I talked about Dystopian Fiction.  This week, I’m going to look at another venerable subgenre: Portal Fantasy.

Definition:

Portal Fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy where the protagonist goes through a portal from the real world into the fantastic.

History

Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Widerland in 1865 as a favor to the daughter of a friend, after she loved his story of Alice and her adventures during a float trip up the Isis, a nickname for part of the River Thames.  Lord Dunsany published The King of Elfland’s Daughter in 1924, though it’s brilliance was only recognized after the re-publication by Ballantine Books in 1969.  And in 1950, C.S. Lewis began publishing The Chronicles of Narnia, based on an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood he had when he was 16.  And the genre took off from there.

Common Tropes and Conventions

All you need is a portal and a fantasy world on the other side of it.  Generally, the protagonist is also treated as a savior or Chosen One in the other world.

Genre Crossover

Portal Fantasy often crosses over with High Fantasy, as most of the worlds on the other side of the portal conform fairly solidly to High Fantasy tropes and conventions.  Some anime and manga uses Epic Fantasy worlds as their targets.

Media

Alice and Narnia have both gotten several big movies, though there are no original film stories in the genre that I know of.  Anime and manga are chock full of portal fantasy, including the ever-popular Inuyasha.  And obviously print is full of it, or I couldn’t have written this post.

Future Forecast

There’s plenty of new Portal Fantasy being published these days.  It’s always been popular, and it likely always will be.  This interesting article on Making Light contradicts me a bit here, but I think it’s a bit pessimistic.  Perhaps a new style of portal fantasy will change the game.  I think I’ll get on that.

Recommendations

1.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland series by Lewis Carroll

2.  The Fionavar Tapestry series by Guy Gavriel Kay

3.  The Chronicle of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis

4.  The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

5.  The Magicians series by Lev Grossman

6.  Amber series by Roger Zelazny

7.  The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson

8.  The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

9.  Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente

10. Anime: Arata Kangatari

Goodreads list of Portal Fantasy

Check in next time for a discussion of Near-future SF.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Dystopian

Sub-genre of the Week: Dystopian

Last week, I talked about Epic Fantasy.  This week I’ll be discussing one of everyone’s favorite genres: Dystopian (Science) Fiction.  It also happens to be one of the most commonly misunderstood.  Hopefully I can clear things up a bit.

Definition:

Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that involves a societal structure argued to be a utopia by its administrators, which in fact suffers from some fatal flaw, such as authoritarianism or over-surveillance.

History

Dystopian fiction has a very distinguished history.  Samuel Butler first published Erewhon: or, Over the Range in 1872, detailing a country in which the sick are criminals while criminals are considered sick.  It could be argued to be a satirical utopia, as it comments on many aspects of Victorian society, and here we come across the first ambiguity of dystopian fiction.  However, whichever way it is categorized, it was certainly an influence on later works.

For example, it greatly influenced Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where society is divided into five major castes, raised in creches and assigned their roles in life.  The novel is often considered a response to Huxley’s visit to Imperial Chemical Industries’ Brunner and Mond plant, and is an extension into the future of many of the principles of the Industrial Revolution, and represented many people’s fear of losing their individual identity.  A further influence on Huxley was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, written in response to the authors life in Imperial Russian in the early 20th century, which reflected on the mass collectivization of labor.

The next major dystopian novel was George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, which represented the increased uncertainty with government surveillance, the rise of communism, and gave rise to the popular icon “Big Brother”.  Other famous dystopian novels include Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

More recently, we have Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a sickeningly accurate prediction of a more modern version of the Big Brother surveillance state.

And finally, we arrive at Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series of novels, which spawned a vast tide of YA “dystopian” novels.  The Hunger Games recalls Koushun Takami’s 1999 nove, Battle Royale, the story of a class of Japanese teenagers iset on an island for a game of survival where only one can remain.  It remains to be seen whether this new wave of dystopian fiction can match up to the old giants of the genre.  So far, I’d say it hasn’t.

Common Tropes and Conventions

A “perfect: society with one major flaw, generally the rampant suppression of a group or social freedom we take for granted today.  Otherwise, not much else has to be in common.

Genre Crossover

Dystopian strongly crosses over with apocalyptic fiction, especially in the new wave coming out in the wake of The Hunger Games.  It can also cross over with near-future SF, such as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl.

Media

Many dystopians, from Soylent Green to The Hunger Games have graced the big screen.  They’re also common in Japanese manga and anime, such as Deadman Wonderland, where a privatized prison has become the new Disney World.

Future Forecast

The new wave of YA dystopia is still going strong, and looks to keep on going for quite awhile.  Whether adult dystopias will make the same comeback is uncertain.  But the genre looks to be in no danger of slowing down.

Recommendations

1.  1984 by George Orwell

2.  Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

3.  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

5.  The Giver Quartet series by Lois Lowry

6.  Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

7.  The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

8.  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

9.  Movie: Soylent Green

10. Anime/Manga: Deadman Wonderland

Goodreads list of Dystopian fiction.

Check in next time for a discussion of Portal Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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