Worlds Worth Fighting For
April 7, 2014
Indie author Ryan Toxopeus got roped into a blogging chain in which you’re supposed to blog about writing on Monday, and tag some other poor bastard(s) to continue the chain. Last week, he tagged me. I was thinking of doing one about Romanticism in speculative fiction, but I feared getting sidetracked by the need to explain Romanticism to people who don’t geek out over literature and art. I’m not qualified for that, nor do I get paid enough. Instead, I’m going to give you the straight dope about why I write in this genre: I don’t like the real world, and I don’t know how to fix it. I wanted to share a vision of a world worth living in, a world worth fighting for, with those who would rather work on fixing the real world than imagine a better one.
Some of you might have read the last paragraph and thought, “Hey, that sounds like a Genesis song from the 80s.” You’re right. I share my father’s opinion concerning Genesis, and they were better before they went commercial and Peter Gabriel left the band, but I retain a certain affection for their “Land of Confusion” single. Like Queensryche’s 1988 concept album, Operation Mindcrime, it still seems relevant.
Misplaced remnants of youthful idealism aside, I have other reasons for writing speculative fiction. I freely admit I could have stripped all the weird stuff out of Without Bloodshed. Morgan Stormrider might have been a FBI man with a different name. I could have made Naomi Bradleigh a MI-6 agent (and most likely a pale brunette like her namesake). I could have made the Phoenix Society a conventional NGO fronting for a drug cartel, human trafficking, or illegal arms sales. Morgan, Naomi, and their friends could have chosen to work outside the law and outside their respective chains of command to stop the Phoenix Society.
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to write a straight thriller. That wasn’t big enough for me. I wanted to take a crack at big ideas, big themes, and big stakes. To be crude: I wanted to write an epic without having to dick around with iambic pentameter and dactylic hexameter.
Furthermore, I wanted to write a human epic, one that pits all of humanity against a threat that forces them to reconsider their understanding of the world and their place in it while focusing on specific characters. I wanted to take a crack at exploring what it means to be human in an age where it seems likely we will create artificial intelligence and artificial life. I wanted my characters to be able to work within their society, instead of stepping outside it and pushing the same old “suspicion of authority” meme.
I had to get out of the real world and create one of my own, one where the threats my characters face are not mere men, or institutions created by human hands, but powers beyond human capability and intellects alien to our own. I wanted to write about androids unaware of their nature fighting demons from outer space. I wanted to write about libertarian knights in black carbon-fiber armor astride nuclear-powered motorcycles.
I want to write stories that are bigger than life and louder than heavy metal. I want to write about a world that doesn’t suck,with people who aren’t dull non-entities of interest only to their friends and family. This is why I write speculative fiction. Now it’s somebody else’s turn. Michael Shean, Lynda Williams, and Charity Bradford: by these names I summon thee!
Boomsticks | (Love – Truth) = Hate
April 3, 2014
Wordy Newb replied to my post about the Boomstick Test in Boomsticks | (Love – Truth) = Hate.
I’m particularly gratified by the following, which comes at the end of his post.
But let me extend some well-deserved kindness: the post I previously quoted was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to anyone who (like me) has aspirations to write science fiction or fantasy. I simply found the quote in question to be an excellent illustration of the concept that anything apparently magical or supernatural can be cast as scientific (or vice versa).
He himself made that point, on purpose, and I do not believe I misrepresented him. However, he himself defined the word ‘supernatural’ quite well, and stands above my fictional J. Random Atheist in terms of clarity of thought. I wronged him and those of his caliber by not making that clear.
Profanity in Speculative Fiction
April 1, 2014
I’m stuck for a better topic today, and I don’t want to skip posting on the first day of the month, so we’re going to talk about the use of profanity in speculative fiction. It’s an argument we’re not going to see settled before the sun goes red giant and swallows the earth in nuclear fire, and I’m in the right sort of mood to write on the subject tonight. If you have opinions of your own, share ‘em in the comments.
First, what’s profanity? Googling “define: profanity” yields the following: “blasphemous or obscene language.” Blasphemy usually involves swearing by gods or parts of their bodies, but only matters if you’re religious and your god or gods are involved. Obscenity, at least in English, usually pertains to sex or excretion — hence the seven words you’re not supposed to say on American broadcast TV: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. ‘Cock’ and ‘pussy’ are usually dicey, as well.
Here’s the late George Carlin on the seven dirty words:
Fantasy authors like Joe Abercrombie and N. K. Jemisin use different approaches to profanity in their work. Abercrombie uses modern English profanity without apology. Jemisin takes a more nuanced approach, inventing profanities to fit her invented world’s culture. Her approach is one also used by Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, and C. S. Friedman.
I think both are valid approaches for different reasons. Abercrombie writes about harsh, crude people doing harsh, crude things. One of his protagonists is the most sympathetically written torturer since Severian. He uses modern English everywhere else in his work; it wouldn’t make sense to hold back from the use of modern English in his dialogue. I can’t comment on Jemisin’s work in detail because I haven’t read her work yet (a deficiency I mean to correct), so I’ll refer you again to her blog, where she speaks for herself.
Jo Walton also recently reposted an old on the subject for the Tor blog; her post is called “Knights Who Say ‘Fuck’”. According to her, explicit profanity in speculative fiction didn’t really become acceptable until the 80s, presumably when editors employed by publishers collectively said, “Fuck it. I don’t get paid enough for this shit”, and stopped replacing every usage of profanity with euphenisms like ‘swore quietly’ or swore at length’.
We also have authors like Matthew D. Ryan, who dislikes profanity in fantasy literature. Because I disagree with him, I’ll reproduce the thrust of his argument in his own words, instead of injecting bias by attempting to paraphrase:
…there is a distinction between normal literature and fantasy literature. Normal literature is generally geared toward adults. Fantasy literature is generally geared toward adolescents and young adults. There are exceptions, of course—and many adults (I am one of them) enjoy fantasy literature throughout their lifetimes—but the primary audience of fantasy literature is a younger one. And I think it should be written with that in mind. To that end, I think the story should be relatively free of the most abrasive forms of profanity.
Just so you understand my viewpoint, I was conversant in the use of most of the Seven Dirty Words before my first day of kindergarten. I learned them from my parents, who would use them when frustrated. As a result, I immediately flash to this line:
I admit this is an emotional reaction. It’s equally irrational to assume that the use of profanity automatically makes a work better.
Despite this, I cringe at any argument that suggests profanity is inappropriate in fantasy because Tolkien made Gandalf’s parting words in Moria “Fly, you fools.” instead of “Get the fuck outta here!”. Given the mythic style and setting Tolkien used, modern language of any sort — especially modern profanity — would have broken the entire story. No doubt he would have shuddered at the use of dwarf-tossing jokes in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers, and I suspect his son did so in his stead.
I don’t buy the argument from Tolkien, because I am not Tolkien, and have no interest in writing like him. If I’m going to find my way, I have to write my characters as I understand them. In many cases, that means using language others might find objectionable. Nor do I write primarily for younger audiences. Without Bloodshed is not a young adult novel. It isn’t even new adult. The youngest character is twenty-five and she’s responsible for most of the novel’s profanity. Meet Claire Ashecroft.
Claire’s one of the good guys for many reasons. She’s a loyal, trustworthy friend. She’s honest and respectful with her lovers, of which she has a great many. She refrains from abusing her skills as a cracker. However, Claire is not a “nice girl”. She is both liberal and inventive in her use of profanity. To tone her down by replacing what she says with inoffensive euphemisms would be a disservice to her character, and to the reader.
Because I write about characters like Claire, and because I write in a secondary world that only resembles our own, I mix modern English profanity with invented blasphemies.
Claire shrugged. Sorry, Mal, but I got you by the balls. I’m just going to give ‘em one last squeeze. “Just tell me one thing more. Was Edmund Cohen drunk when he filed his request?”
“I lack firm data concerning Cohen’s sobriety. However, his request was verbal, and filed from his home. Analysis of speech patterns and vocal cues suggests a 99.999% probability of inebriation. Further analysis of Cohen’s vocalizations suggests the presence of a female companion, but she did not speak while Cohen recorded his request, making the presence of a companion impossible to confirm. Furthermore, no Witness Protocol data is available for Edmund Cohen from last night.”
“Lilith’s luscious labia, no bloody wonder you want to keep it all a secret.” She ran her hands through her tangled hair, snarling as she pulled a knot apart. “Which one of the Sephiroth handled Edmund’s request?”
Of course. He never thinks these things through. “I want to talk to him, and I don’t give a single little fucking shit about your protocols or his feelings.” She stopped, and breathed for a moment as she considered her options should Malkuth refuse her.
“What if I refuse?”
“We’re friends, Malkuth. I hope you won’t refuse.”
Could I have written this exchange, and the rest of Without Bloodshed without profanity? Yes. It would have been different, and not necessarily better. Language matters. That isn’t a reason to refrain from using profanity. Sometimes it’s a reason to do so.
The Science Fantasy Spectrum
March 20, 2014
What do you call a fantasy novel written by an atheist? Science fiction. I admit it’s a lame joke, but I wished to illustrate without quoting Arthur C. Clarke that fantasy and science fiction can be treated as a spectrum, with high fantasy on one end, hard SF on the other, and science fantasy in between.
What is Science Fantasy?
Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other hard SF classics, postulated three laws of prediction. The third is the one most often quoted, and most relevant to this post:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The third law is of particular interest to me, because I don’t write straight fantasy or straight science fiction. I write a sort of hybrid called science fantasy. I do so because, despite my best efforts, I cannot bring myself to write straight fantasy. I can’t just write magic, I have to figure out how the magic works, and somehow tie it to known science. I can’t just write about gods; they have to be aliens of some kind. My swords can’t just be steel; they have to fabricated using some kind of proprietary alloy incorporating precious metals like palladium.
Blame the influence of writers like Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and C. J. Cherryh. Blame movies like Ghostbusters and Star Wars. Blame video games like Doom, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and Shin Megami Tensei. Blame anime like Vampire Hunter D, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Scrapped Princess, Vision of Escaflowne, RahXephon, or Trinity Blood. Or just blame my atheism. Whatever you blame for my inability to do straight fantasy, the result is the same: my worldview has no room for the supernatural, which makes it difficult for me to write fantasy. Nor do I have the STEM background that SF titans like David Brin, Larry Niven, C. J. Cherryh, or Ursula K. Le Guin can boast, so I’d be mad to claim I write hard SF.
Preternatural vs. Supernatural
But what is fantasy? What is science fiction? What’s the difference between the two, since both genres often deal with phenomena not explained by existing science? I think the difference lies in how the characters treat such phenomena. In science fiction, phenomena outside the current scope of human knowledge is preternatural. In fantasy, such phenomena are supernatural.
At this point, you might be as confused as Smudge. You might be used to conflating the preternatural with the supernatural. Let’s unpack the terms, and see if that helps.
The word “preternatural” has a Latin root, ‘preter-’ (or ‘praeter-’), so its original definition is “outside or beyond nature”. The medieval Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas defined the preternatural as “what happens rarely, but nonetheless by the agency of created beings…Marvels belong, properly speaking, to the realm of the preternatural.” He contrasted the preternatural with the supernatural, which was God the creator’s exclusive province. Early modern scientists use the term to denote abnormalities and strange phenomena that seem to depart from the expected course of nature.
I use the word “preternatural” to denote phenomena outside the current scope of human knowledge. Such phenomena can still be studied and understood through the use of scientific reasoning. Supernatural phenomena, by contrast, are outside human understanding and will always remain so. If we could understand God, he wouldn’t be supernatural, but preternatural — and eventually just natural.
The Preternatural in Fantasy
If we use Thomas Aquinas’ definition of the preternatural, as explained above, then the use of preternatural phenomena in fantasy goes back at least as far as J. R. R. Tolkien. Some readers may argue that the magic used by characters like Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel is supernatural, because there’s no explanation as to how it works. It’s just there, and it just happens. I see where they’re coming from, but these characters aren’t gods, or avatars of gods.
As a wizards, Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, and the two unnamed Blue Wizards constitute the Istari, an order of Maiar — angelic beings — sent by the Valar to Middle-Earth with a mission to teach and inspire the mortal races of humans, dwarves, and elves to fight Sauron on their own. Galadriel is of the Noldor tribe of Elves who once lived among the Valar in the Undying Lands before following Feanor back to Middle-Earth to help fulfill his oath of vengeance against Morgoth for stealing the Silmarils. Sauron, Gandalf, Saruman, the Elves, and the Maiar and Valar are all creations of Eru, the One, though these connections aren’t necessary clear unless one reads beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and starts digging into the Silmarillion.
Because they are created beings, their powers are preternatural rather than supernatural. I think Tolkien himself would agree, given his adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. The only way to be sure, however, requires the services of a competent necromancer.
The use of preternatural phenomena in fantasy does not end with Tolkien. Because Terry Brooks’ Shannara setting is post-apocalyptic, almost everything his characters encounter is more preternatural than supernatural, though they don’t necessarily have the science to explain the weird shit that happens around them.
In C. J. Cherryh’s Morgaine books (Gate of Ivrel, Well of Shiuan, Fires of Azeroth, and Exile’s Gate), the protagonist Morgaine seems otherworldly, and her tools and weapons appear to be witchcraft, because we’re limited by the perceptions of the viewpoint character Vanye, who simply doesn’t have the context to understand the tech on which Morgaine depends in her mission to shut down every last one of the qhal gates.
The human colonists who landed on Erna in the beginning of C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy didn’t understand the fae, the force native to Erna that tried to integrate humanity into the biosphere by giving human terrors physical form. They started by treating it as magic and then studying it.
Brandon Sanderson continues in Ms. Friedman’s vein. The systems of magic he uses in his Mistborn novels, the standalone Warbreaker, and his epic The Stormlight Archive may resemble systems of magic intended for use in tabletop role-playing games, but in the context of his stories they subject magic and similar phenomena to human inquiry. He pulls magic out of the realm of the preternatural, and makes it natural in his settings.
Beginning with Heroes Die, Matthew Stover also depicts a world in which what we call magic is just a natural force in his Acts of Caine series. The people of Earth understand that on Overworld, magic is just part of nature, but analysts working for the Studio system underestimate the inhabitants of Overworld, and assume that the presence of magic makes scientific inquiry impossible until a thaumaturge does some basic scientific-method research to create wearable anti-magic clothing that functions on the same principle as a Faraday cage. It just gets crazier from there, by the way, and you should read the books yourself if you’ve got the stomach for grimdark.
My brand of science fantasy is hardly unique, though I think Starbreaker falls between The Stormlight Archive and The Acts of Caine on a spectrum between idealism and cynicism, with Stover’s series holding down the cynical end. You can see for yourself if you read Without Bloodshed, though the preternatural elements in the first Starbreaker novel are minimal, compared to what I mean to show in The Blackened Phoenix, Proscribed Construct, and A Tyranny of Demons.
What About the Supernatural in Fantasy?
At this point it’s fair to ask if fantasy has any room for genuine supernatural phenomena, or if the post-Enlightenment worldviews influenced by science, logical positivism, and other philosophies make impossible the task of depicting supernatural phenomena in fantasy fiction. I think that the supernatural is only possible for entities which exist outside the universe, who reach inside and monkey around with the world with no regard for how the world normally works.
The only instance of a genuine supernatural phenomenon in fantasy that I can think of also comes from Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the last section of the Silmarillion detailing the fall of Númenor. When the Great Armament led by Ar-Pharazon landed on the shores of Aman, the Valar put aside their guardianship of the world of Arda and said, “Eru, we’re gonna let you deal with this.” Eru dealt with Ar-Pharazon by burying the Great Armament, placing Aman outside Arda, making Arda spherical when it had once been flat, and sinking Númenor — though the Elves could still find their way back to Aman if they set sail from the Grey Havens.
If you know of any other examples of the genuinely supernatural in fantasy, or just want to talk about this article, post comments. Also, please feel free to share this article if you found it interesting.
March 18, 2014
Since Daniel Swensen had made a point of asking me what I thought of his debut fantasy Orison after my previous mention here, I figured some rereading was in order. I tore through it this weekend, in between being summoned to help other Dark Souls II players achieve victory through jolly cooperation. I didn’t want to go back to working on Starbreaker stuff right after reading Words of Radiance.
Orison is a short, fast-paced novel. At it’s core, it’s a crime caper. There’s a MacGuffin, the titular orison, that the dragon Penumbra has put into play for reasons the novel eventually reveals. She offers it to Ashen One-Howl, a Warborn retainer to the Queen of Calushain, who quite sensibly refuses.
His sensible refusal turns out to be a mistake. Others get their hands on it, and scheme to place Wrynn and Dunnac, a wizard-turned-gambler and a swordsman exiled by different countries, in a position which forces them to obtain the orison and transport it.
The last piece of the puzzle lies in Story, a young burglar who manages to get her hands on the orison during a fight between Wrynn and Dunnac against Ashen One-Howl. The stakes rapidly escalate from here with Penumbra and an opposing dragon stirring the pot, leading to an explosive climax and a denouement that does a solid job of wrapping up the novel and leaving room for sequels despite its relative brevity.
I enjoyed Orison, and wouldn’t mind seeing more in the Lotus Throne setting. I found Swenson’s choice of “Penumbra” as a name for the dragon who set the novel’s events in motion interesting. A penumbra is a shadow cast by an object that partially occludes a light source, such as during a partial solar eclipse. I wonder if there’s some significance there, or if Swensen chose that name for other reasons.
What’s YOUR favorite fictional sword?
March 5, 2014
Sure, this Fantasy Faction article on swords in fantasy dates back to 2011, but that doesn’t bother me. Not when I still listen to classic Black Sabbath albums like Paranoid, which dates back to 1970.
I can’t blame the author for not mentioning the Starbreaker, since I didn’t publish until late last year. I didn’t grow up watching Thundarr the Barbarian, and I managed to avoid Thundercats. I can name several swords I prefer over Squall Leonhart’s gunblade, despite being one of the few people who enjoyed Final Fantasy VIII.
It’s at least four feet worth of rune-carved black metal; it eats souls and feeds its wielder power; it can destroy the avatars of gods and demons, and it inspired a badass Blue Oyster Cult song. Aside from Stormbringer’s nasty little tendency to munch on Elric’s friends and lovers, what’s not to like?
Oh, and here’s the BOC song I mentioned.
This crystalline sword from C. J. Cherryh’s science fantasy saga chronicling the adventures of Morgaine and her retainer Vanye is even deadlier than Stormbringer. How do you defend yourself against a sword that opens a black hole at its tip whenever it’s drawn?
One word: run.
The Lion-mark Katana from Kill Bill
I don’t think the sword Hattori Hanzo forged for The Bride despite his vow to never again forge a killing blade has a name. It doesn’t need one. It’s an extension of The Bride’s will, and the instrument of her bloody vengeance. That’s good enough for me.
Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch) can be slow going for readers unfamiliar with his style. However, the executioner’s sword with which the journeyman torturer Severian is gifted as he is exiled by his guild is an exquisite instrument. It’s all edge and no point, which makes thrusting attacks impossible, but Severian still wields it to deadly effect on his enemies — and his facial hair.
The Unnamed Sword of tegeus-Chromis
I’m going to get really obscure here and mention M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, the first and least literary of his Viriconium novels and stories. Its melancholy protagonist, Lord tegeus-Chromis, fancies himself a better poet and musician than he is a swordsman, and doesn’t bother to name his sword. Considering the skill with which he wields that blade, he must be a damn good musician.
Fritz Leiber’s character Fafhrd is as practical a sort as his parter, the Grey Mouser. Instead of having a special sword named Graywand, Fafhrd simply takes any longsword that’s handy, calls it Graywand, and starts kicking ass with it.
What about you? This site has a comments section for a reason. If you have a favorite fictional sword, I want to hear about it.