Mar 13

The Burning Eye of Tolkien

So, yet another list of favourite books has come out topped by The Lord of the Rings. (This one from NPR.) It got me wondering: Why?

Now, I read the trilogy at least eight times, in the paperback single-volume edition that my grandmother gave me sometime in my early teens or thereabouts. (I will say I haven't had the urge to read it lately.) I love the movies, too, with the inevitable few carps. And yet...

LOTR has significant flaws. The overly-massive backstory (which Tolkien's son is still publishing in umpteen volumes) is probably not one of them, but it doesn't make it an easy book to pick up and immediately understand. The prose is... old-fashioned, at best, exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from an Oxford don who'd been in World War I.

There's Tom Bombadil, rightly cut from the movies (I don't think I've heard anyone express anything other than relief at that decision), and the songs, likewise. The story is slow to get moving. There are only three female characters to speak of, only one actually does things (Eowyn), and she does things by disguising herself as a man.

The politics belong to the 1930s, when an educated person could say "lesser races" with a straight face (not that Tolkien uses the phrase, as far as I remember, but he doesn't need to - it's implied clearly enough). I could go on.

So why is this consistently the most beloved book, getting onto list after list - and not only on the lists, but usually at the top?

Let's speculate.

It could be its iconic status as what you might call a "genre fount". Epic fantasy owes its genesis to LOTR, after all - though I suspect that epic fantasy is, otherwise, a minority taste, so it can't just be that. I would have expected its pulpy sword-and-sorcery predecessors to have more status, if that was so. Of course, sword-and-sorcery is a genre with multiple defining books, whereas LOTR founded epic fantasy all by itself.

It could be its nobility and high-mindedness. I'm actually serious. Sword-and-sorcery is down and dirty, urban (mostly) and gritty. It's not aspirational literature. Epic fantasy gives us a myth of striving to preserve what is left of our noble origins in a degenerate age, which is, after all, an appealing theme, even if it's also an elitist and reactionary one. It also romanticises rural life, feudalism and chivalry, and as westerners we're suckers for that, apparently.

It could be, of course, that Tolkien, a philologist who loved the Kalevala and the Elder Edda and Beowulf and all those other obscure classics that only get read by students these days, was getting his mythopoea first-hand rather than, like his imitators, second-hand and diluted. I suspect that the feel of mythic power in LOTR is a big factor in its popularity, and a factor that's a lot harder to reproduce than the externals of epic fantasy which we're all so tired of. (Clash of great nations, quest, Chosen One, Dark Lord, McGuffin, mixed group of companions, swords and horses, nobility, mysterious old wizard, twilight of the elves/gods/empire, yadda yadda yadda.)

(For anyone wanting to write better epic fantasy, by the way, I'd suggest reading the obscure, wonderful Well at the World's End by the multi-talented William Morris. The link is to the free text at Project Gutenberg. Both Tolkien and Lewis knew and loved it, which is why I read it, and I'm glad I did.)

Perhaps, having attained the status of a "classic" because of its freshness when originally published, its mythic depth and its many imitators, LOTR continues to be cited out of reflex when people think "great fiction" or "great F & SF". Maybe it's one of those "I fell in love with the genre through this book when I was young" things. I don't know.

What I do know is that I want to bring down the burning eye of Tolkien by casting the quest-epic into Mount Doom, because even though he does it so well, many other people do it so, so badly. This happens in every genre, of course, particularly ones that start selling well. Publishers will shove out any old dreck in a popular genre once a breakout hit has made it popular, while overlooking, in general, the next breakout hit because "it's not what's selling currently". So goes the world. Need I say more than "vampire"?

Feb 15

The Why of Names

One of the things about good worldbuilding is that at each point, you need to stop yourself and think, like an observational comedian, "why do we do things that way? What's that about?" But unlike an observational comedian, you also need to find out the answer - to become aware of your cultural and historical roots, and think about how things could have been different.

Which leads me to a Pet Peeve about poorly-thought-through fantasy settings.

You're reading away, and the religious background of the setting is, of course, paganism-lite (because of Gary Gygax, probably, though I suppose he got it from Robert E. Howard or someone). That's just what unthinking genre-fantasy authors do, it's the default. 

Judaism and Christianity have never existed in the setting. And here's a character, and what's her name?


I mean, think for just a moment.

Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome

Approach number 2 to naming fantasy characters, if you don't just use familiar Western names without any regard to their origins, is to make them up.

Most people are not good at this.

I read a series once which, though enjoyable overall, had a number of flaws. One of them was that the hero's girlfriend, his horse, and his brother (or maybe it was his sword) had very similar names to each other, and it was hard to keep them straight.

And then there are names full of apostrophes. Now, some people really have names with apostrophes in them, mostly Pacific Islanders. The apostrophe has an actual function, which is to separate repeated vowels and make it clear that they are repeated, with a little pause between, not just allowed to become one long vowel.

An apostrophe can also indicate a glottal stop, as in the Cockney dialect. Glo'al stop, Guvnor? It's an actual sound, although a subtle one.

And then there's the Bad Fantasy Naming use of apostrophes, which is usually just as decoration and serves no purpose whatsoever, except as a warning to the discerning reader.

Naming the Gryphon Clerks

So when I came to write the Gryphon Clerks, I needed a sensible naming schema that didn't just give me Bill, George and Tl'ca'varuna, possibly in the same family.

Here's what I did.

There are two main religions in the Gryphon Clerks setting (in real life, there are often two or more religions in a geographical location, but this is a lot less common in fantasy). The Asterists are, mostly, more upper- and middle-class and follow the rather abstract star religion of the old Elvish Empire. (It's a very mild Tolkien joke.) The Earthists are, generally, commoners, and kind of paganish in a way that is slightly more accurate to historical paganism in our world than the usual genre-fantasy polytheism.

They have different naming schemes, but both of them are based on words from ordinary language. They're not made-up combinations of sounds - I do that a bit with some place-names, but I'm no Tolkien, I don't want to spend half my life making up a bunch of languages before I can start telling stories.

The Earthists are named after natural phenomena and objects - Brook, Breeze, Leaf, Rain, Berry, Bird. (They're never named after specific plants or animals, though, because those names are reserved for shamans who have got those plants or animals as totems through an ordeal.) Their clan names describe where their clan worships - Sandybeach, Lichenrock, Ashgrove. Men and women can have the same names.

Asterist women are named after desirable abstract qualities: Victory, Patience, Prudence, Kindness. Asterist men have similar names, but where women's names are nouns, men's names are adjectives (I made this decision partway through when I noticed that I'd generally followed that practice): Vigilant, Determined, Honest, Faithful, Magnanimous.

The other distinction in Asterist names is between members of the Silver and Gold classes - that is, the middle class and the ruling class. Silvers typically have names of affiliation (they aren't really surnames in our sense) taken from their trade or occupation or that of their recent ancestors: Farmer, Carter, Carpenter, Miller.

Golds take their names from their family's estate. Tranquil of High Spur, for example, is a member of the family that owns the High Spur estate. The head of the family gets to drop the "of", and if you're ruler of a territory you can, if you choose, call yourself after the territory when you're being official.

And if you're Copper class and an Asterist, for example a servant, you might take a name like "Hope at Merrybourne" to indicate that you belong to the Merrybourne estate, but not as a member of the family.

I won't go into dwarf and gnome naming except to say that a dwarf gets his or her parents' names and a birth number until craft graduation and then takes a name related to the craft - usually a tool, material or technique - and gnomes are called by names related to their family's function in a similar way. Hence Mr Bucket, whose family are cleaners.

The main point is not the details of how all this works, but to point out that I spent some time thinking about how names would work. My goals were:

  • Keep the lack of realism restricted to the fantasy elements. My feeling is that when you're writing fantasy, all the mundane stuff should be reasonably believable and the suspension of disbelief should only be required for the magic parts.
  • Make the names easy to spell and remember, for my sake as much as anybody's.
  • Communicate something about the characters by their names, rather than just using them as arbitrary labels.

I think I've achieved that.

Dec 12

What I’m not doing with the Gryphon Clerks (and why)

The thing about a well-established genre like fantasy is that it has certain conventions that everyone just assumes.

This is both a trap and an opportunity. A trap, if you go in unthinkingly and just do things because that's how they've been done by hundreds of other authors before you, in which case you are contributing to a perception of the genre as derivative and unoriginal. Contributing to making that perception accurate, in fact.

It's an opportunity, on the other hand, if you take those now-classic riffs and give them a whole chunk of funk.

Here are a few of those assumptions, overused ideas and conventions, and how I plan to subvert them, twist them and otherwise funkify them.

The hero is the big guy on the horse with the sword

We can trace this one, if we want to, back to the invasions by mounted barbarians that swept from east to west across the European plains, and the fact that history is written by the victors.

In my setting, the big guy on the horse with the sword is solving the wrong problem. The hero is the one who's making tough choices that benefit other people as his or her own cost, and doing so through working together with other people of goodwill. Hence the tagline about heroic civil servants.

Actually, the hero is the sassy kick-ass girl these days

Big guys on horses are increasingly giving way to smart young women with attitude. Unfortunately, they are still, generally, solving the same kind of problems in the same way (beat people up until they stop opposing you), only with better banter and wearing better shoes.

I actually think women are capable of solving problems more creatively than that. Men, too.

OK, The unlikely hero is the little guy from an ordinary background who saves the world

The thing about the way most fantasy heroes save the world is that it's intensely protective of the status quo. We mostly have Tolkien to thank for this, though any genre that looks back in time for its models and then idealises them is going to be inherently conservative. The traditional fantasy hero is reluctantly drawn into vast events when his small, comfortable world is threatened.

My little folks (who are, for the most part, only figuratively little, and do not have hairy feet - or light fingers) don't react to threats so much as they have an ideal of a better world and believe they can help to create it. I'd say that they're progressives, except that a particular political agenda which isn't always my agenda is associated with that word.

But surely There must be a chosen one to combat the Dark Lord?

The whole Chosen One/Dark Lord plot has been so done to death I won't even read a book that signals it in the blurb. GET A NEW PLOT, PEOPLE!

No Chosen One. No Dark Lord. Some of my villains don't even kick puppies, they just have a different agenda from the heroes and are sometimes less ethical about what they'll do to advance it.

It's not actually necessary for a villain to wear black and twirl his moustaches while tying a girl down in the path of an oncoming train. You can be a bit more subtle in your depiction of opposition. This isn't American political television.

Ahem. So, um, elves - they're all noble and emo, right?

Why? Just because Tolkien's were?

Read some of the original source material about the elves. They're vicious bastards, and they think humans are scum. They'd enslave them if they could. So yes, they are "noble" if by "noble" you mean "like the actual medieval nobility".

So, in my setting, they had an empire that was a bit like the Roman Empire and a bit like the British Empire and, in places, a bit like the Third Reich. And humans managed to get out from under them by a process that I may or may not get around to explaining fully, but they still have a lot of culture and religion derived from the Elves. The human nobility, whose ancestors were mostly house-servants and who took over the mansions when the Elves saw the writing on the wall and bailed out, still worship the Elves' star-gods, for example. High culture is conducted in Elvish, or at least in the Elvish script.

Oh, and the Elves were bioengineers. They made gryphons and flying horses and werewolves and kelpies and beast-headed people and medicine cows that are milked for pharmaceuticals. They made humans stronger and healthier and capable of using magic. All their stuff looks - and probably is - grown rather than built. In contrast to the dwarves.

Dwarves? Little hairy guys with axes and helmets?

Little industrialists with ledgers and scale balances. Technologists and businesspeople. They coin all the money, since everyone trusts their contracts and the purity of their alloys, even if they don't like the money-grubbing little buggers. Anything made out of metal is made in a dwarf-owned workshop - usually by gnomes, who are a dwarf underclass and your basic exploited industrial workforce.

A dwarf won't fight when he can trade. He doesn't carry an axe - he has people for that sort of thing.

Trolls, right? Or goblins or something?

Nope. No "evil races" or "lesser races" or "degenerate races". We're not in the 1930s. There are people, and other kinds of people.

At least tell me there's a quest

Oh, Harry Potter and the Far Too Many Plot Tokens? No.

Oh, there are magical gizmos and so forth, and they're useful and amusing, but no McGuffin. You don't need one if you have a real reason for people to take action, like, I don't know, redemption, or revenge, or protecting your people, or proving to yourself that you're not that guy, or any of the dozen reasons that real people have for the things we do.

Realism? You're writing a realistic novel?

No, no, no. I find realistic fiction boring, because the sets are so predictable. Give me a flying ship powered by magically-generated steam and a levitation spell any day.

So it's steampunk?

Well, there's the aforementioned steam, plus at least one set of brass goggles, and probably magical artificial intelligences/computers. The female ruler's name is Victory, too. But she's not even slightly Victorian, and the dialogue is mostly normal contemporary language. I did "period" in my last novel, and I think I pulled it off, but it's a lot easier to write the way I talk.

I will say this: Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from mad science.

Bioengineering, antigravity, computers - why not just stage it as sci-fi?

I have a funny relationship with the science fiction and fantasy genres. See, I have a little scientific training, and that's my worldview, for the most part, but I find a lot of contemporary science fiction bleak, alienated and hopeless. Fantasy is a lot warmer and more human, and it's more about human values and ideals, which is what I'm most interested in. But I can't stop thinking like a scientist, so it's hard to just say "a wizard did it" and move on.

Hence this strange collision of retrofuture-sci-fi-inspired technologies in period steampunk dress, powered by magic.

Genres are there to make it easier to lay out a bookshop, after all. They shouldn't become boundaries of the imagination.