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Category Archives: Themes

Scalded by Steampunk

So I dropped into my blog reader today, and the number one topic of conversation seemed to be that steampunk sucks, is boring, is shallow, is revisionism(fictional revisionism, the horror!), is a commercial sell-out, is crap, is shit, is tiresome, is over-hyped, is racist, is colonialist, is adventurist, has not one really powerful story to its name, etc.

And then I saw that one of the people saying this was Charlie Stross, and I almost cried.  Because I love the books Charlie Stross writes.

And then I stopped and thought:  “People are getting worked up over a fucking sub-genre of fiction.”  Why?  What’s the point?  You don’t like steampunk?  Great.  Enjoy whatever it is you enjoy, but why attack a genre that’s never done anything to you?  Either write something better or move on.  Isn’t there some new Tolkien clone somewhere to bash?  Horrendous glorification of the middle ages and all that?

If speculative fiction was a house, steampunk would be the leaky boiler pipe in the basement.  Don’t stand in front of it and you won’t get burned.  Maybe you find it annoying.  Well, I find it annoying when people turn down the high while wearing a jacket indoors.  Tolkienesque fantasy could fit that metaphor very well.  But there are four other people in the house who agree, so I suck it up and move on with my day.  I don’t accuse them of oppressing the working class.

I’ve read some great steampunk, some good steampunk, and some shitty steampunk.  The latter category is much larger than I would prefer, but 90% of every genre is crap, so why the need to jump on one poor little sub-genre over having a few shity books, or books that disagreed with your politics by having a few noblemen protrayed in a positive light?  Nobody is making you read this, and I don’t know very many other readers or writers who would prefer to live in the 19th century because they loved the last steampunk story they read.

 
 

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Atsiko’s Speculative Fiction Alphabet

There’s a lot of material out there about writing, but most of it is general: how to use adverbs, dialogue tags are bad, mix up your sentence length.  Then there are less general posts and articles and discussions: race and ethnicity in fiction, how to design a magic system, how to world-build, three act stories.  These things get a lot of traction and a lot of focus.

What don’t get a lot of focus are more specific issues of plotting.  Tropes, plot devices, themes.  So, for the next little while, I’ll be exploring these less-appreciated elements of fiction.  And since this is a spec fic blog, I’ll be exploring their applications in that genre.  There’ll be more than one post for each topic, so think of it as a series of miniseries.  I hope you’ll find something useful in these posts.

 

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Education in SFF

This article in the Globe and mail is something that I’ve been saying for a long time, though perhaps not where many people could hear it. I used to read over a hundred books a year during elementary, middle, and high school, but for the most part, class reading was a chore. I got through it because I already enjoyed reading and could bust through the assigned reading in the five or ten minutes before the bell rang to start class.

I’m a radical devotee of the “work isn’t fun” philosophy, and when it comes to learning, this sort of forced curriculum can be devastating to students–both good and bad. That’s not to say I don’t support education, but we need to rethink the ways in which we provide this service.

I think science fiction is one genre in which we can explore the theme of education with enthusiasm and intelligence, and I wish we had more stories out there doing this. If anyone knows of such a story, please send a link my way.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2010 in atsiko, Themes

 

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Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

A few days ago, I posted a quote that expressed a rather negative view of our current system of education  (in American and around the world).  First, I’d suggest you watch the anime mentioned in the title of the work from which the quote is excerpted: “Kare Kano”.  This show was also known as Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo in Japanese, and “His and Her Circumstances” in English.  It really gives you an understanding of where the quote is coming from.  Of course, it’s 26 episodes or about 12 hours long.  So, I also hope to elaborate on that in this post and the ones that follow.  You won’t be required to watch the anime to understand the post.  That would be ridiculous.  But I still think it would help.

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with writing science fiction and fantasy–or anything else, for that matter.  The answer is “nothing”.  And “everything”.  It also might have something to do with fact that I’m researching for a near-future SF story dealing with education and society.  Bear with me.

Every society has two important things that make it what it is: expectations and acceptations.  Expectations are pretty obvious, the things one is expected to do to make it in society.  In the modern world, these often include education, occupation, and reproduction.   Acceptations are a little more complicated.  They are culturally wide-spread opinions on what are “acceptable” deviations from the norm.  Being a child film star instead of going to normal school is an acceptation of modern American(US) society.  Becoming a drug dealer is not.

It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what an individual believes, because social pressures are usually strong enough to override individual opinions..  But it most certainly matters in personal terms.  Being forced to conform to a blanket set of expectations can be very damaging to a person.  For instance, in modern America, there is still a great deal of prejudice towards homosexual orientations.  Society expects that a man will pair up with a woman and have children.  When individuals deviate from these expectations, there are consequences, generally negative, in response to those unaccepted actions.

But think about this, there are also ways to positively violate societal expectations.  If someone drops out of college to join a rock band, there would normally be negative reactions, but if they become wealthy or famous or both, suddenly everyone is praising them.  Sort of the old “I’ll show them!” ideal.  But even with numerous examples of this, the negative perception of such behavior still exists, because “normal” people cannot do these things.  You might call these exceptions.  If one drops out of school and becomes a wealthy prostitute or pimp, even that “success” does not justify their deviation.

That’s how it works in the real world.  And on the surface, that’s how it works in fiction.  Especially mainstream, earth-based fiction.  But what about speculative fiction?  All too often, we drag our baggage along with is into stories ostensibly set in other worlds, dimensions, countries, even if the natural expectations and acceptations would normally be different in those settings. 

On the one hand, it could be argued that the whole point of fiction is to explore our own issues.  But I would counter that that doesn’t require us to transport all of our 21st century Earth attitudes into past or future worlds.  You can still address contemporary issues in fictional settings.  All it takes is a little imagination.  And I know the spec fic community—and the writing community in general—has that.

It’s actually a very common discussion topic on web-based spec fic communities whether or not that ham-fisted projection is acceptable in good fiction.  If we look at contemporary foreign literature (and this applies not matter what is “foreign” to you), we can see that these authors can write a story in which we sympathize with character issues that don’t derive exclusively from our own culture.  Look at how popular Japanese cultural exports are in America.  An enormous number of manga, anime, and light novels are translated both officially and unofficially into American English.  Is Japan a radically different culture?  Not in the modern world.  But they do have a different set of cultural expectations, acceptations, and exceptions.

When writing a story, it’s very important to consider what is “normal” within that setting, and what is exceptional or discouraged.  It used to be that people from the lower classes were discouraged from pursuing higher education—or any education at all.  It used to be in our culture that music was a special activity, for a small number of people, and now it’s a part of most curriculums.  And before that, it was a community activity.

These sorts of societal pressure have an enormous impact on us as people, and the same should be true for characters in your story.  Examining and exploring these issues before you begin to write can cut down a great deal on the clichés common to many spec fic stories, such as the plucky princess, the genius peasant,  the scholarly whipping boy, the child seer/mage, and the feisty girl thief.  Assuming they don’t fit in the context of the story, of course.

And, of course, for those characters that do fall outside of the mold, it can create a more deep and realistic sense of tension between them and society.  And it can open up a wide array of themes for the story to explore: gender, age, race, class, etc.

 

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Quote of the Night

Prospective valedictorians take heed:

“A child’s future should not be defined by how much longer they must work their ass off until they can do what they enjoy—because the answer is ‘forever’.”

~Kare Kano: Reflections on a Compulsory Education

 

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The Two Types of Urban Fantasy

Looking at the genre from one angle, there are two types of Urban Fantasy, Type-P fantasy and Type-D fantasy.

Type-D, named after Harry Dresden–because he is awesome and I saw the TV adaption on the Sci-Fi channel (before they came up with that ridiculous re-branding “SyFy”), and because someone over on AW used it– is fantasy where the MC is aware of the story’s supernatural elements.

Type-D can further be divided into stories where magic is “out of the broom-closet”, and known to the world at large, and the much more common set of stories where it’s a Big Fuckin’ Secret. You might guess which one I prefer. It’s probably due to my bias from secondary-world fantasy, where even if it’s a distant existence, both physically and mentally, magic is usually known to the general populace.

Type-P, named after Harry Potter–which is one of the more famous examples currently–is fantasy where the MC discovers that magic exists.

These stories come in two common varieties, stories where the MC does have magic, and stories where they don’t. The latter are usually the most popular.

Both types have their advantages and disadvantages:

Type-D can throw you right into the action. The plot is to the fore and it is where most of the attention is focused. Demon-hunting, vampire cabals, changeling conspiracies. A great example is Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire. MC knows about magic, is involved in magic, and is going to have a great time hunting down the “bad” kind.

Type-P is different. You might have some action at the beginning, such as the kid-napping or murder of someone close to the protagonist–or of the protag themselves. But then you have to deal with the fact that, “ZOMG! Magic!” Whether you’ve got a reluctant protagonist or one who Jumps at the Call, they have to process their reaction some time. You get a lot inner dialogue, friction with more worldly allies, and a great deal of shock and awe. All of these contrive to distance the beginning of the story from the real plot.

Which could go either way. Sure, their twelve-year-old sister got kidnapped, but… “Level 12 Fireball!” How can that not be cool? And that’s one of the major differences.

Type-D is often about the surface events, the plot, even though it is likely to be quite “character-driven”. Type-P is often more about the character arcs, the themes. Of course, these are only generalizations. You can still have fantastic character arcs in Type-D UF, and run around collecting plot coupons and fighting bad-guys in Type-P.

But if you look at my examples, you might notice something. How old are the characters in Dresden Files and Child of Fire? How old in Harry Potter? What about, dare I say it, Twilight? You can argue that it’s PR, not UF, but the genres are pretty close, and there’s a great deal of crossover. If you look back at most of the recommendations in my original post, you’ll see that the trend continues.

Now, I’m not dumping all Type-P UF in the YA category–although if you look at the whole Fantasy genre, you’ll see it follows the trend closely as well. There are counter-examples, naturally. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for example, has a discovery plot and an adult MC. And it is not alone. Nor do younger characters always qualify a story as YA (or MG). But it’s a trend.

And one of the reasons for it is the ability to use magic as a metaphor for just about anything we don’t know about, or are uncertain of. Including growing up, love, getting out of the school environment, learning that life isn’t so simple as you thought, etc. And Type-P UF, and Type-F for that matter, handles these themes very well. Issues of self-discovery, personal identity, social identity, cultural identity, sexual identity. All of these have been addressed within Type-P. Being a wizard, a shifter, a vamp. These are all things that separate someone from the rest of humanity, just like being gay, or black, or female might set someone apart.

In Type-D, characters are usually more stable in their identity, more confident. They aren’t dealing with so many first, so many new things. They’ve already honed their skills, learned their lore, chosen their profession. And this allows for all sorts of stories that you couldn’t have in Type-P. It makes for different approaches as well. Whereas a twelve-year-old is not going to go undercover in an ab-dead dreamshit ring, a thirty-year-old were-falcon cop could do so easily. And vice-versa. Middle-aged investment bankers aren’t going to be wandering around in the attic, or playing hide and seek in the wardrobe. 9-year-olds certainly won’t be hunting down strange sorcerers who turn children in burning piles of grubs that burrow away into the soil.

There are many other ways to divide or classify urban fantasy. There’s N. K. Jemisin’s Stylistic vs. Contextual UF, over on Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days. You could classify by protagonist type: “Kick-ass broad” vs. suave vampiric playboy. Or smart, tough, magic detective. There’re the various lineages and influences I mentioned in the last post. The list goes on. They all provide some insight, and some context.

Next time, we might talk about those lineages a little more in depth. I think the term “lineage” in general makes for a great sub-category of “sub-genre”, unless you’d prefer “sub-sub-genre”? Either way, we’ll explore the idea soon.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2010 in Authors, Fantasy, Genre of the Week, Themes

 

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How to Create a Believable Magic System

So, for the last two posts, I took a break from discussing magic to lay some basic groundwork on how stories function. To sum up:

Stories are kept interesting through conflict and suspense. These are created through tensionSuspense is built through external “story” tension, and conflict is built through internal “character” tension.

If you haven’t read those posts, I suggest you do. But if you understand what I just said, you’re good to go.

How do you create a believable magic system?

The first step is to decide on your goals for the magic. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Does it create suspense? Perhaps the Dark Lord has the power to turn all the seasons to winter, and your characters are on the verge of starvation. Or maybe he can’t. But you as the writer must know which.
  2. Does it create conflict? You know vampires? And all the angst that fantasy has decided comes with being one? That’s magic-derived internal conflict. But magical conflict isn’t only about whether Louis wants to drink blood or not. How would you feel if you couldn’t give your daughter a proper burial because that bitch Carnival had sucked her dry? Or what if the dragons are taking back their country dammit, and themselves take whoever is getting in their way.
  3. Does it resolve suspense or conflict? For example, are your characters allowed to escape a situation by using magic? This is fireball country, people. Brutes or brains? Or both? Lavan Firestorm burned up an entire invading army that seemed destined to overrun Valdemar. And Dirk Proven saved the world by figuring out when the next eclipse would occur—and lying about it.
  4. Does it create a sense of wonder? Who wasn’t impressed by the Nazgul, or Shelob? But I bet you don’t know where they came from, or how their power works. Good thing it didn’t matter. Now, Lackey’s ley-lines were fun, and you might even have wanted to be able to use them, but were they mysterious and awe-inspiring? No. Just a way to move along the plot. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But is it what you—as an author—want?
  5. What themes will your magic express or explore? Yes, themes. I know you had enough of analyzing literature in high school. Or not. But whichever it was, this is still something you need to think about. Maybe you’re a panster, and you only know the themes after you’ve written the book. But they’re there all along, and it can be much simpler to follow them if you know what they are in the first place. Maybe you’re an environmentalist. Would you prefer a story about ghosts or trees that would rather not be cut down? What about the pollution of sacred sites? Ursula K. Leguin tackles this with the story of how one of the great cities used the Lips of Paor as a garbage dump. I bet they were really willing to help when our friend the Mender needed his powers temporarily removed.

Now that we’ve gone over choosing goals, maybe we should talk about how to achieve them. There are several things you need to do to make your magic meet your goals:

  1. Know what your magic is and what it can do. Yes, flying is cool, but if your character is a water mage, there’s not much they can do about it. Making them a wind mage is not the solution, folks. The solution is to make compromises. Your character needs to part the sea in chapter 4? Then they can’t fly over the Mountains of a Million Trolls in chapter eight. If your character can do anything, we aren’t going to have much of a story.
  2. Know what your magic is and what it costs. Maybe you can part seas and fly. But it’ll cost you your first-born child. And you’ve already got one. Maybe you know the character will pay for this later. But the reader has a much shorter attention span. The more you can do, the more—and sooner—it should cost you. Physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s permanent at some point. You can trade the cost as many times as you want, as long as you don’t trade it out of existence.
  3. Make it hard to learn. If your hero can learn the equivalent of a bible’s worth of spells in four weeks, why isn’t everyone and their pet hydra killing bandits and enjoying the magical equivalent of total climate control? If they are, then why does a prophecy about a fire-flingin’ half-elf princess so incredible to them? You’ve got to work out all the consequences. After that, it’s okay to indulge in some judicious ignorance.

Those are the basics, guys. There are way too any ways to create magic systems for me to fill out every little nook and cranny of magic-making theory. Later, I’m going to do some in-depth critiques of various magic systems, pointing out all the places things went right, and all the places they went wrong. And maybe I’ll even make up a magic system just for the Chimney, to really show you how the process looks. Field-work is fun, but “show don’t tell” is a real pain. Why do you think we writers don’t do it?

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Themes, Writing

 

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