Jun 14

Distributed Protagonism

Quick placeholder until I have more thoughts and more leisure to write a full article in response to this piece in Uncanny by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton, which talks about how it's not always been the case that stories have a single protagonist; it's just the current fashion. And can we maybe write more books where teams and multiple protagonists and people who don't have arcs, but do have agency, are present? Given that this is the world we live in, and we're more and more aware of the fact? And that there are (as I've noted myself) big issues with the single special protagonist?

Writing ensemble books is a thing I've been doing for a while. It's difficult, and I'm choosing a particularly difficult approach: I'm currently working (slowly) on the final Auckland Allies book, and the approach of that series is to take the first-person narration convention of urban fantasy, but have multiple first-person narrators, a team, of whom none is more central than any of the others.

The Uncanny piece gives me some directions to potentially explore in, including what they call "tapestry" (lots of POV characters, who are not necessarily protagonists with arcs, but can still have agency); "braid" (lots of POV characters, who do mostly have protagonism and arcs); and the now-old-fashioned but maybe-due-for-revival out-and-out omniscient narrator.

I get the feeling that maybe I need to read some older fiction and get to grips with what these people were doing, and then think about how it could be updated and re-skinned.

Spread the word
Feb 22

Where Next for Mike’s Writing?

I've been in a writing slump lately.

Health issues starting in November have put me out of the habit of regular writing, and I've not made much progress on the books I was working on. Auckland Allies 4 still needs a polish-up before it's ready to be published, and although I'm 20,000 words into the first book in my new Arcanists setting, it's tough going, and I'm not really feeling it. I think I've taken the wrong direction with it somewhere.

I've been questioning where my writing is going in general, in fact. I celebrated a million words of published long-form fiction last year, and just as we often reassess our lives around milestone birthdays, I feel that a milestone like that calls for some reflection.

I recently read a book on Roger Zelazny (link is to my review on Goodreads; it won't be published until May) that got me thinking. Zelazny is one of my favourite authors, and a direct inspiration for some of my own fiction, including several short stories that are among my most successful and that I'm most proud of. The book outlines how he had a brilliant, award-winning early career and was hailed (rightly) as an exciting and surprising new author with great potential, and then, once he became a full-time writer, was accused of having become "too commercial" and knocking out books with not enough development to explore his ideas to the full.

That's not how he saw it, by the way. One reason, I think, that his books are so compact is that he decided early on that he wouldn't overwrite or overexplain, that once he'd shown the reader something he wouldn't go on talking about it but would move on to the next thing. To me, that makes his books concentrated, rich despite their typically short length. He also talks, in an interview included in the book, about how each book he wrote experimented with something that he considered a weakness, but that he tried to put in enough of what he knew he did well that even if the experiment failed, the book itself should still be able to succeed.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about what I want to achieve with my writing. I've always wanted to produce something - whether books or otherwise - that will be of lasting value. A lot of the work I do in my day job is with technology that will be replaced within a few years; it's likely, if I live a decent length of time after I retire, that none of the work I did in IT will survive me. I've come to terms with that recently, and decided that it can still be the case that things are worth doing even if they don't last and aren't remembered; they had worth at the time. (The fact that I've got into cooking, which is inherently short-term in its usefulness but is definitely useful while it lasts, has a lot to do with this shift in philosophy.) Nevertheless, I would like to write books that aren't just things of the moment, that people will still be reading after I'm gone.

Now, there are a couple of different kinds of books that are "of the moment" but don't last. One is purely commercial, what I sometimes refer to as "extruded fiction product"; produced to meet a market demand, just like thousands of other books, with nothing about it that distinguishes it or gives it longevity. The other is the kind of book that wins acclaim and awards at the time it's published, because it captures the zeitgeist so well; but because it captures the zeitgeist so well, if it doesn't have anything else going for it, it dates rapidly and falls out of fashion.

You only have to look at old bestseller lists and awards lists to encounter dozens of both types. I personally feel that a lot of books that are winning awards at the moment are of the second type. People are tremendously excited about them because they fit so absolutely perfectly into this moment's (particularly US) political landscape, but when that landscape inevitably shifts, there won't be much else to keep them in favour. It's like what I often say about books that are marketed as humourous: if the joke falls flat, you still need to be telling a good story with well-rounded characters, not just ringmastering a trope parade with a bunch of silly names. So, for example, I think Ann Leckie's work will endure, because even though it does mesh so strongly into current politics, it also tells a powerful story and tells it in excellent prose. Other books, which I'll refrain from calling out by name, will be forgotten as quickly as they became celebrated, because really the only thing they have going for them is that people see themselves in them who are not used to seeing themselves in books. And, I sincerely hope, they will go on to see themselves in plenty more books that also have a lot more than that going for them, and then they'll look back on these ones with a nostalgic pang but see, in retrospect, that they were hollow chocolate bunnies.

I'm self-published. I'm not selling a lot of books, because honestly I'm terrible at marketing and I don't enjoy it (plus what I write is in neither the current commercial mainstream nor the current critical mainstream); but that means that I can do anything I like, pretty much. I don't have a publishing house to tell me I can't, and I don't have a big, vocal fanbase demanding that I produce a specific type of book or be lambasted. That kind of freedom is dangerous - I could easily fall into self-indulgent tripe that only I like - but it's also powerful. I can experiment. I can try new things that I might fail at. If I realize that I've failed, I don't need to release it; it's not under contract, and I won't drop off the Amazon charts and lose a huge income if I don't constantly release books. I don't make my living from writing.

So I can write something I care about, something that's difficult for me, something that resonates with universals of humanity, something that is like the books I most like myself: a propulsive plot, characters with depth who are doing the right thing against the odds, some reflection to provoke thought (without preaching), a fresh and fascinating setting.

That's inherently hard to do. I know that not only because I'm a writer and know how hard different writing things are, but also because I'm a reviewer, and of the many books I see, only a few of them manage it. I think it's a goal worth reaching for, though.

What I need is to figure out exactly how to do it and then execute it.

I've done project work of various kinds for nearly 30 years; I'm used to figuring out how to do hard things and then executing them. The trick will be to find something that draws me in enough that I'll stick with it through the difficult parts, because, as already noted, I don't have to do this. Nobody's making me.

So, concretely: I'm very close to finished with Auckland Allies 4, and I feel like it's sound. I plan to polish that up and release it during the first half of this year.

Next after that could well be Auckland Allies 5, which will finish the series. I think I can keep up the momentum and do that; I have an ending in mind, and it's a heist story, which I love. The characters are already full of useful complications and have clear, distinctive voices.

After that? I don't know. I may take a different tack and tell small, intimate, psychological stories for a while. I still feel that Hope and the Patient Man is one of my best books, if not the best, even though I wrote it years ago; it's primarily a love story, with engineering and politics going on mostly in the background. Despite my love of ensemble casts, it may be time to focus on one or two protagonists striving for something they really care about.

It's time, in fact, for me to be a protagonist, striving against the odds for something I care about: writing good books that mean something.

I hope I can.

Spread the word
Feb 22

Quidditch as a Metaphor for the Chosen One

It occurred to me yesterday that the game of Quidditch in the Harry Potter books/films is a telling (and probably unintended) metaphor for the problem of the Chosen One.

A team of people work hard to score goals with the Quaffle, avoiding the Bludgers and redirecting them against their opponents. One by one, little by little, they make progress, building up their score.

And then some little snot catches the Snitch and all of that effort (usually) means nothing. Whether the rest of the team were winning or losing, unless they've done a truly amazing job, the catching of the Snitch is going to be what decides the outcome. Their painstakingly assembled score is a footnote.

This is why I can't stand Chosen Ones (I make a reluctant exception for Harry because of other factors, but his Chosen One status is still an annoyance to me). The message is that the Chosen One is the only person whose actions matter. The work and sacrifice of everyone else is background; what truly won the day was the Chosen One doing one special thing.

This is not how The Lord of the Rings works, by the way, to take an example from an equally popular franchise. Frodo, of course, isn't a Chosen One. There's no prophecy about him. He is, in many ways, just an ordinary person who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; what's extraordinary about him is that he steps up to do what needs doing. The rest of the cast know that their role is to support him, but what they do still matters (and not always just to his mission, either). They're as indispensable as Frodo is, each in their own way.

To be fair, that's true of HP as well, mostly, but it's still infested with a Chosen One, and Quidditch is still a miniature of how the whole series and the individual books tend to play out. It's the Great Man theory of history, in which only a few people's decisions truly matter, and everyone else's striving is merely background.

If you know my work, you know that I lean towards ensemble casts, and ordinary people with extraordinary commitment (though I do sometimes have exceptional protagonists; it's difficult to avoid the temptation, because I admire competence so much). I do this as an overt and deliberate rejection of the trope of the Chosen One. It's a difficult trick to pull off, because as genre readers, we do like to identify with one powerful protagonist whose actions are the key to the whole plot.

For philosophical reasons, though, I'm going to continue to make the effort.

Spread the word
Nov 23


So, since my last post, I've started on the first book of the Institute Arcane series. Working title is Novices.

And my thinking on the setting has developed. I said in the previous post that when I came up with the idea of the magical Great Work being a network of canals, I felt like it maybe should be something with more sensawunda. Well, Fred (Damon Knight's name for the subconscious assistant that all writers have) has done good work, and sensawunda is now all over it.

There's still a network of canals, inspired by the British canal system that helped launch the Industrial Revolution. But now it's a network of air canals, with constant winds, contained within invisible force fields, propelling levitating air-barges and rapid courier boats. A kind of magical hyperloop, if you will.

The original dull stone cube of the Institute Arcane itself has become a thing that I love: a magical castle with bizarre, even whimsical architecture, making full use of the magic system's ability to play with gravity and set up constant movement in air and water. I'm sure it will get even more strange and fun as I develop it (while remaining carefully distinct from Hogwarts, which has a high proportion of whimsy for its own sake).

I often read fantasy novels - mainly ones set in a version of our world, rather than a secondary world like this one is, but sometimes secondary-world too - where I feel like the magic that's described doesn't make enough difference to the world at large. It's as if it's only been worked out just enough to cover the central plot, and not all of the things that are off-camera or in the background. I don't want to make that mistake here.

We see the Institute through the eyes of Gwin, a student who's dreamed of going there most of her life, and who is all about the sensawunda of it. She thinks the Institute is just terrific, and even though I plan to have her become a little bit disillusioned with some aspects of it, the place itself is still cool.

So far I'm almost 10k in. I'd toyed with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo with it (since I'm in a NaNo Storybundle at the moment with my nonfiction book The Well-Presented Manuscript), but I've had some issues with my old shoulder injury which are limiting how much I can type, so I'll probably not get much further than that in November. That's fine; hopefully I can rehab my shoulder and do a bit more when I'm on my Christmas-New Year break.

Because the sensawunda is strong with this one, I'm taking my time getting to the inciting incident, but it will come soon. And it's not coincidence or luck that brings the characters together - they've been selected for a project; nor is it a battle against any kind of Dark Lord, but (as per my earlier post) the creation of a Great Work of magical wonder, the abovementioned air canal network. While I'm at it, I'm undermining some romance tropes, as well. I know exactly what readers will be thinking by this point, and I am going to gleefully subvert their expectations, in a way that I hope will not be a disappointment but a thought-provoking twist.

Most importantly, I'm enjoying this new world and what I'm doing with it. The characters are emerging, are distinct from one another, and will mesh well together. I'm still a touch concerned that I don't have quite enough plot for later on; but I'm sure Fred will come through for me again when it counts.

Spread the word
Oct 13

New projected series: The Institute Arcane

So I've decided to do a series set in a magic school: the Institute Arcane.

No, it won't be another sub-par Harry Potter ripoff, such as the market is currently awash in. Honestly, it's more Brandon Sanderson than J.K. Rowling, in the sense that there are very specific limitations built into the magic system, and those are both creative constraints for me and also key drivers and shapers of the story. (Rowling's magic system, like her worldbuilding generally, is loose, inconsistent, whimsical, and not always fully worked out.)

This is a university, too, not a high school; it has more kinship with the school at Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, or for that matter with Pratchett's Unseen University, than with Hogwarts. But you can't escape the shadow of HP whenever you write about a magical school.

Part of the overarching story for the series is that the characters are setting out to create a Great Work. Creating a magical wonder is not a thing you see too often in fantasy; usually, you're seeing the characters questing for (occasionally, destroying or witnessing the destruction of) a wonder from earlier, mightier times.

Western fantasy has its roots in medieval and Renaissance literature, and medieval Europe was looking back on the days of Rome, when great construction projects like the aqueducts were created. To the medieval mind, these were the works of giants, inconceivable in scope; they were able to create awe-inspiring cathedrals, true, but it sometimes took generations. I assume that's where fantasy gets the whole "works of the ancients" trope from.

I've worked on projects pretty much throughout my working life. When I was a book editor back in the early-to-mid 90s, each book was a project, and it took multiple people to bring it to fruition. Since then, I've worked on many IT projects, large and small, usually for big manufacturing businesses or public infrastructure organisations, which (like the projects themselves) are an example of many people coming together to achieve things that nobody could achieve alone. So doing a series in which a big project is the overarching plot is something I've wanted to do for a while.

The Great Work itself is probably going to be a system of canals, with magical currents to push the boats along. It was canals, not railways, that initially made Britain the world's first industrial nation, creating wealth, lowering the price of goods, and accelerating the gradual shift in the balance of power in society away from people who owned land to people who owned businesses, as well as being one of the preconditions for urbanisation and everything that went with that. There were, of course, bitter fights over most of the individual canals and over the canal system in general, nor did the building of the canals go smoothly in many cases. And, as always, unprincipled people saw the opportunity to make some easy money by selling stock for something that might or might not ever exist, and if it did exist, might not make any money. So there's plenty of conflict baked right in.

Shropshire Union Canal near Norbury Junction

When I was initially considering canals as the Great Work, I wondered if I should do something with more sensawunda, something less pragmatic and more exciting. But a canal system that revolutionises the economy is very on-brand for me.

The kind of work I do, and the kind of work done by the people I do that work for, is not spectacular. We're not going to get prizes for it. Wikipedia would say that we, and our work, are of "questionable notability".

But you would notice if we stopped.

I read a book a little while back by an (I assume) callow youth who portrayed, more or less incidentally to his plot, a society completely composed of elite geniuses. Missing from his conception of the world was the fact, known to us who have been around a bit longer and toured the concrete corridors behind the scenes, that no society can function just with an elite. The world works even as well as it does because millions of ordinary people turn up every day and do their unspectacular jobs, often with considerable devotion.

And my fiction sets out to celebrate that, in the Gryphon Clerks (not only civil servants, but engineers, doing what they do each day to make people's lives better), and in the Auckland Allies books (underpowered magic users stepping up to defend the city because there's nobody else).

I've never been poor. I've been short of money, but that's different from being poor. I always had my solidly middle-class parents (both schoolteachers, plus my father made an extra income from writing sports books) to fall back on if I really needed to. My ancestors were not so prosperous; my mother's family were all skilled tradespeople with their own small businesses in the male line, and farmers on her mother's side, while my father's ancestors worked as sailors, fishermen, and the like. His father drove a train, and his mother's mother kept a boarding house near the end of the railway line (which is how they met).

So I don't have much direct knowledge of what it's like to be really struggling, though I do have a family background that's relatively humble just a couple of generations back. My world is, and always has been, composed of what used to be called the "middling sort": not wealthy, not poor. The big layer of folks in the middle of the sandwich that keep the wheels turning. And so that's who I like to celebrate in my fiction, though I'm also planning to toss in a noblewoman in reduced circumstances and a street thief, just to mix it up.

But I'll put them in a school for wizards, because why wouldn't I?

Spread the word
Aug 14

More on Portal Fantasy

I recently read a book that got me thinking about portal fantasy again. (For my earlier thoughts, see On Portal Fantasy.)

It was itself a recent portal fantasy, and the way in which it got me thinking about the genre was not a good way. The protagonist goes to another world, where the inhabitants are suffering under a dictatorship. It's ripe for change, but the people themselves aren't able to bring that change; that needs the special person from our world. She triggers the change by introducing a different element to their act of religious worship, which, instead of finding deeply offensive, they welcome.

After some vicissitudes for her, the domino effect from her (relatively minor) action brings down the dictator, whereupon she turns around and goes back home, leaving the locals to sort it out from there. (Of course, nothing in real-life history suggests that there will be any kind of problem at all when a place with a diverse population that has been under a dictator for many years is finally cut loose; coughYugoslavia, coughIraq, cough, sorry, something in my throat.)

If you are thinking, "That sounds like the White Saviour trope," that's what I thought too--except that in the book, the protagonist is not white. It is still pretty colonialist in its effect, though.

I posted on the Codex writers' forum, of which I'm a member, about this, and the resulting discussion has helped me work through some further thoughts on portal fantasy. Discussions on that forum are confidential by default, and I don't want to take anyone else's ideas and claim them as my own, but I will talk about what I came up with myself, acknowledging that it was the context of being able to talk them out with other people that helped me develop them. I'll also briefly mention immigration, which was discussed by other people in the thread, though I don't have a lot to say about it myself.

So, a theory: portal fantasy is one part of a wider group of genres that also contains (some) utopian fiction, Lost Worlds, fantastic voyages, and (some) planetary romance. Possibly (some) alternate-world-hopping fiction, (some) multiverse stories, and (some) time travel also.

It's sometimes said that the only two stories are "someone comes to town" or "someone leaves town". This genre is about "someone really leaves town". It's a visit to a place that is strongly Other, and what happens there says a lot about how we feel about the Other.

Early on, when most people didn't travel much; travel was difficult and dangerous; and people not very far away were extremely different, the Fantastic Voyage predominated. Think Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey, early medieval examples like Brendan the Navigator, the later medieval Travels of Sir John Mandeville, and, as late as the 18th century, Gulliver's Travels. (Sinbad the Sailor is not much earlier than Gulliver; it's a late addition to the Arabian Nights, though it's based strongly on medieval models.) Because most of the world wasn't mapped, any strange thing could be over the horizon. C.S. Lewis embeds a Fantastic Voyage in a portal fantasy with Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and, because Lewis was a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, it contains many of the classic features.

Ancient ship 6th c. BC (2)Usually, the travel in these stories was by ship, since this was the fastest and safest method of travel at the time (though neither very fast nor very safe by modern standards). However, you could also walk or ride to strange places; the Silk Road, for example, as described by Marco Polo in the late 13th/early 14th century, led to places that were legendary or completely unknown to Europeans. Familiar places and strange places were contiguous, just a long way apart with a lot of tedious travel in between, as they are in most secondary-world fantasy (think about Bilbo and the road that goes from his door in Hobbiton all the way to Mordor and beyond).

Later, as the world became more thoroughly mapped, the possible number of locations for strange places and their strange inhabitants shrank, and became confined to distant, uncharted islands and remote mountains (Samuel Butler's Erewhon, set in the then-uncharted interior of New Zealand; Charlotte Perkins Gilmore's Herland and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, both set on remote, inaccessible plateaus in South America; Shangri-La in Tibet; etc.). More had already set Utopia on an island in the 16th century, and for that matter, most of the strangeness in the Odyssey takes place on islands. Even as late as the late 20th century, Paradise Island/Themyscira, the Savage Land (hidden in Antarctica), and Wakanda were credible locations, at least for comics.

Gradually, though, all of the Earth was mapped, and the Other land had to be further away. The Celtic Otherworld provided inspiration for George MacDonald, who influenced Lewis, and there you had portal fantasy (as I argued in my previous post). There was the Hollow Earth idea, too, and trips to the moon by various means (starting with Kepler's Somnium and Godwin's The Man in the Moone in the 17th century and leading through to Wells and beyond), and gradually you got planetary romance, with A Voyage to Arcturus via crystal ship, and John Carter projecting himself to Mars by willpower alone, and then Northwest Smith a bit more realistically going by rocket. And then, as we learned more about the planets, that too started to become, not impossible, but consciously retro; when Lewis published his Space Trilogy, he knew that Mars and Venus weren't really as he portrayed them, but he didn't care, because that wasn't his goal. It was a way of putting his protagonist in a strange Other place.

But these days, if you want a fantastical setting with an anchor back to our world in the form of a character who goes to the setting and (usually) comes back, portal fantasy is probably your go-to. Though a lot of similar things can be done by other means; Michael Underwood achieves a kind of portal space-opera by having someone from our world go through a one-way, one-time teleporter from some Atlantean ruins, and I've read some alternate-world-hopping and time-travel fiction that's not too unlike portal fantasy in many respects. Star Trek's planets of hats have a good deal of the DNA of the fantastic voyage in them, too.

And just because we have so many stories like this over such a long period of time, certain tropes get embedded so deep it's hard to see them. And some of those are about the traveler being superior to the weird natives and being able to fix their problems when they are helpless to do so, or the natives being valuable mainly for what they provide to the protagonist, and not being as real or as important or possessing as much agency as the protagonist. We do, after all, like a protagonist to have agency, right? (Though how much agency a Chosen One of prophecy actually has is debatable.) In the Chronicles of Amber, for example, Amber (and Chaos) are explicitly the only "real" places with the only "real" people; everywhere else is just Shadow, and Corwin has few qualms about recruiting an army out of Shadow and leading them to slaughter. This is an intensely colonialist mindset.

But not all the stories are like that, and they don't have to be.

Part of the problem, I think, is that most societies, definitely including contemporary Western societies, foster an unconscious assumption in their citizens that Here is the best place to come from, and People from Here are the best kind of people, and other places aren't quite as real or important, and if they do things differently that may well be because they don't have the benefit of being from Here and knowing the correct way to do them.

This isn't an inevitable part of the genre, though. The early works I described above, for example, where the Other place was intensely dangerous as well as strange, put the traveller at risk and at a disadvantage compared to the inhabitants--though even as far back as the Odyssey, the hero is a trickster who pulls one over on the locals and then leaves.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland gives us another model, also used in other utopian works (including Utopia itself): the Other place as critique of our society, as a way of speculating about how things could be different. Herland is like Wonder Woman's Themyscira in that it's isolated and hidden from the world (on a plateau in South America, rather than an island), contains only women, and is utopian. A group of men find it and variously are schooled in how to be more civilized/mess the place up because they refuse to be schooled. It's not a great story as a story, but it does give an alternative model.

If we turn to a contemporary portal fantasy like Foz Meadows' Manifold Worlds series, the protagonist goes to a deeply strange and quite dangerous Other place and is transformed by her experiences there (to the point of PTSD). Some things in the Other place are better, from her perspective, some are worse, and some are just different; it's not a one-dimensional comparison. And, while she has some impact on events in the other world, she isn't the sole special Chosen One who saves everyone, and the world probably has more impact on her than vice versa. (I've talked before about the difference between stories where the protagonist impacts the world and stories where the world impacts the protagonist.)

Not that impact on the protagonist in portal fantasy is new either. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader shows us Eustace's transformation into a much better person; The Silver Chair follows up on this by showing us Jill's transformation into someone who can stand up to bullies, though her and Eustace's intervention is also important in the Other world. I highly recommend, by the way, the series on C.S. Lewis's work currently in progress at Tor.com; it's sympathetic without being sycophantic, and celebrates what Lewis was setting out to achieve and did achieve without ignoring the problems in the texts. There's more to Lewis than his detractors often admit, though there are also more issues than his supporters often admit; this series does a good job of balancing those two perspectives, I feel.

I recently read another portal fantasy in this tradition, the rather lovely (and, in my opinion, funny) Pundragon by Chandra Clarke. The protagonist's main contribution to the situation is actually to mess things up and then do his best to help the (more competent) local inhabitants to fix them; he returns to our world having sorted out some of his own issues and more able to deal positively with his life.

The other big experience that people have of going to a strange Other place is immigration. That's not an experience I have had personally; my great-great-grandparents (and one great-grandfather, at the age of 9) were immigrants to New Zealand, but since they all died long before I was born I don't even have personally transmitted stories of what that was like for them. My wife is an immigrant, though from another Western country, which does make a difference to one's experience (and she looks like the majority of the New Zealand population, which also makes a difference). That's not, in short, my story to tell, or something I feel qualified to discuss in any depth, but I do look forward to reading portal fantasies that reflect the immigrant experience.

Of course, that may well mean that the shape of the story is different. Not "there and back again," a classic hero's journey over the threshold into the Other place and then back again to the familiar, but going to embrace the unfamiliar and then stay there, however much you long for aspects of what you've left. Also, bringing change and enrichment to the Other place from a position of having less agency than the inhabitants, not more.

In any case, if you're about to write a portal fantasy, please think about the tropes, and what they're saying about the Other, before you use them.

Spread the word
Jun 29

On Disagreement

I've recently realized that people being friends with other people with whom they have significant philosophical differences is a bit of a theme in my books.

It first comes up in City of Masks, my first novel, where two elderly scholars sit firmly on opposite sides of a philosophical divide that is also political, and which is attached to factions that are literally at war in the city. (I based the factions extremely loosely off the Guelphs and Ghibellines, with possibly a touch of the Blue and Green factions that started out as fans of chariot racing in the Byzantine Empire and ended up as political and, some say, religious parties, each supported by what amounted to street gangs.) The two men have been friends since their youth, and live together, and while they argue and bicker over their beliefs, they are always staunch allies for each other when it counts.

I've recently re-read the existing three novels in my Auckland Allies series, because I want to write a fourth one, and one of the things I did there that I don't see done often is that different characters have quite different beliefs about how key components of the magical world function. In most fantasy novels, if there's a theory of magic at all, there's one theory of magic, which is universally accepted and correct.

A moment's reflection on any given discipline will tell you that this is unrealistic. (Of course, fantasy novels are unrealistic by definition, but my feeling is that the non-magical bits should be as realistic as possible; you get a certain number of suspension-of-disbelief points from your audience, and you shouldn't squander them.) Practically any real-world phenomenon you can name, if you consult enough experts, will be explained by at least two mutually incompatible theories, of which each has its staunch adherents, and neither of which can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Both of them are almost certainly incomplete and, in some ways, misleading. This doesn't stop passionate support of one or other of them being an excuse for politics and interpersonal rivalries.

Unlike the bickering scholars in City of Masks, Dan and Tara in Auckland Allies don't (so far) argue about whether demons are just elaborate spells with personality-like user interfaces, or actual beings; they had all of those arguments years ago, they each know the other's position and that it isn't going to change, so they don't revisit the dispute even when it comes up in conversation. But the disagreement is there, under the surface. They are on the same side, though, when it comes to action; there's never any question of that.

The reason I mention this is that we're in a historical moment where people are forgetting that you can disagree profoundly with someone on a philosophical or religious or political point, or on how the world is as well as how it ought to be, and still be that person's friend and even supporter. A great deal of space exists between "you agree with everything I say and are fully behind every part of my agenda" and "you hate me and fear me and should be burned at the stake on social media for it," but that vast gap is not often acknowledged. US political polarization, aided by both mainstream media and social media, has created the environment of us vs. them; you're in or you're out; you're a member of my faction and therefore can do anything without being criticized, or you're a member of the other faction and therefore can't do anything without being criticized.

This kind of attitude breeds a kind of distributed McCarthyism, where one has to say the exact right things in front of the court of social media or lose one's career without appeal. It creates a chilling effect, where people don't dare to express particular opinions if they want continued access to certain audiences or other groups, because those opinions have been deemed unacceptable in any form, and no discussion will be entered into.

That's not for a moment to say that anyone should be able to say any offensive thing they like without being challenged on it. Again, though, there's a vast gap between politely expressing a disagreement about beliefs and placing yourself in implacable, hate-filled opposition to people who hold a different belief.

Here's my bottom line. I stand with all of my fellow human beings, but particularly the ones who treat their fellow human beings like fellow human beings. Often, that turns out to be liberals, but by no means always; and when it isn't, then I don't stand with them in that particular fight (while still standing with them as fellow human beings who deserve to be treated as such). I don't have a political affiliation; I have a set of principles that doesn't map well onto any existing political divide, but sprawls messily across bits of several of them.

And I believe that we need to remember that we can be friends and help each other without having to agree about everything.

And that's as much as I dare to say at this time.

Spread the word
Apr 21

Realm Agents 2: Underground War, and a Million Word Sale

I've heard it said that your first million words is how you learn to write. If that's so, then I must count as a journeyman; with the publication of Underground War, the second in the Realm Agents series, I now have just over a million words of novels and novellas available on Amazon. That doesn't count the 30,000-word novella and the 43,000 words of short fiction that are exclusively available to subscribers to my mailing list, or the 30,000 words of uncollected short fiction I've sold to various venues (note to self: collect that at some point).

To celebrate, I'm having a Million Words Sale. All my novels and novellas are 99c each on Amazon for a week, including the new novel. There are 15 titles, so you can buy a million words of my fiction and still have change left over out of $15 (USD). Just follow the links from the sidebar on this site.

So, what's the new novel all about? Here's the blurb:

Dedicated agents fight against determined adversaries who want to bring down the realm.

Much has changed in the ten years since the Unification War created the new realm of Koslin and freed the gnomes from servitude to their dwarf masters. But every change creates winners and losers, and a loose and surreptitious alliance including old-line dwarves and separatist insurgents is fighting an underground war against the realm.

Opposing them, Piston and his dedicated colleagues in the Realm Agents use the latest in magical technology to track down and oppose political corruption and attacks against vital infrastructure. But will they be able to put the pieces together before a devastating strike destroys what they are sworn to protect?

Underground War follows straight on from the first Realm Agents book, Capital Crimes, and also brings in some characters from the Gryphon Clerks books (which share the same setting): Briar the snarky lawyer, her gentleman-friend Active Hedger, and Hope the brilliant mage all make appearances, as do Bucket and Braise, the gnome politicians, and Ladle, the newspaper editor. But there's enough backstory slipped in that if you haven't read the earlier books, or haven't read them in a while, you can make sense of what's going on; all my beta readers were new to the world, and they seemed to make out fine.

Still, why not get the other books and binge-read them? They're 99c each.

Spread the word
Feb 08

On Portal Fantasy

This blog post was inspired by reading a book that had obvious debts to Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, and realizing that Amber is one development of the subgenre of portal fantasy.

Before I come back to that thought, though, I want to take a trip back to the origins of portal fantasy, and trace the highlights of its development through to the current small revival.

My theory of portal fantasy's origins - and I think it's a pretty well-founded theory - is that it comes to us via the influence of George MacDonald on C.S. Lewis, and ultimately has its roots in Celtic myths of the Otherworld.

As anyone who has dipped into Celtic myth will be aware, the Celts who made the myths that have come down to us regarded the stone "barrows" or burial mounds of earlier civilizations as the abodes of the faerie folk, and the entrances to them as entrances to the Otherworld, a world of gods or godlike beings, magic, and peril. Time ran differently there - a feature often seen in portal fantasy; an unwary kidnapped bard or other traveller might spend what seemed a night in the faerie mound and come out to find everyone he knew aged or dead. Rip Van Winkle is a version of this story, though the protagonist is Dutch rather than Celtic.

George MacDonald was thoroughly familiar with these legends (and many others, including the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam's first wife), and used the idea of a magically-accessed Otherworld in two of his major works: Phantastes and Lilith. I have always considered Phantastes a dry run for the later Lilith; Phantastes isn't a bad portal fantasy, in my opinion, but Lilith is a great one, with a powerful theme of redemption. It would make a wonderful graphic novel, though the nudity would be a problem, given that its core natural audience consists mostly of Christians.

Lewis was quite explicit about crediting Macdonald as an influence, and I'm sure he read Lilith. The (legendary) Lilith gets a mention in The Magician's Nephew, in fact, as an ancestor of Jadis, later the White Queen (one can see Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen quite clearly in her literary ancestry as well; Lewis was nothing if not eclectic in his influences, something Tolkien apparently disliked about Narnia). Unlike Macdonald's Lilith, Jadis doesn't get a redemption arc; she is implacably an enemy, and perishes as such.

It was Lewis's Narnia that really popularized the portal fantasy, just as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings popularized the secondary-world fantasy (though in Tolkien's legendarium, Middle-Earth is not in fact another world, but an earlier version of ours, like the Hyborean Age of Robert E. Howard). Neither of them invented those subgenres, but they produced works that had such a powerful impact that many later writers either imitated them or took them as a point of departure.

Mostly, they imitated; the list of more-or-less straight knockoffs of Narnia and (even more so) Middle-Earth is too long to attempt to explore here. And mostly, with occasional exceptions, these imitiations didn't engage with the source material of their source material (the Celtic Otherworld in the case of portal fantasy - though that has been done, notably by Steven Lawhead - and Northern European myths in Tolkien's case). They turned what readers most enjoyed about those popular books into a set of largely unexamined tropes, much as we've seen recently with the rash of magic schools based, usually far too closely, on Hogwarts.

Those tropes include, for portal fantasy, the Chosen One(s) of prophecy, who comes from our familiar world (where he or she or they may be ordinary and little regarded, generally because of youthfulness), to become the only hope of saving the other world. This has inevitable colonial baggage, from a current perspective; it easily falls into the White Saviour trope, and declares pretty strongly that the other people over there can, at best, assist someone from our milieu in solving their problems. The strong presence of this theme may have been part of the cause for portal fantasy's waning popularity in the last couple of decades, though I think it was more likely just the unaccountable shifts of fashion that subgenres naturally go through. And, indeed, portal fantasy has never completely gone away, though it's more popular now than it's been for a while.

Later developments did eventually question and revise and reimagine some of the core portal fantasy tropes. Starting in the late 70s (and finally finishing only recently), Stephen Donaldson's long series about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever takes an adult into a portal fantasy, and has him make things immeasurably worse, partly because he doesn't believe it's real, but largely because he's a mess of a human being. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series is explicitly a reaction to what the author hated about Narnia, especially the Christian elements. Foz Meadows' recent Manifold Worlds series takes place in a portal-fantasy setting largely imagined when she was in her teens, and full of elements that represent wish fulfilment for a queer teenager; this inevitably makes it quite different in emphasis from Lewis and his imitators. Jo Walton's short story "Relentlessly Mundane" (collected in Starlings) and Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series explore what happens to the children when they come back to our world, having experienced a very different life where they matter a great deal and are not ordinary, and attempt to explain themselves to the parents and other family members they've left behind.

And, as I realized this morning, Zelazny's Amber is in the portal fantasy tradition too. It didn't immediately jump out at me as a portal fantasy, because, in a bold Copernican move, our world is decentred; it's only one of many "shadows" cast by the true world of Amber, and only as real-seeming as it is because Corwin, a Prince of Amber, has spent so long here. Zelazny takes up the multiversal idea that's implied in portal fantasy, and occasionally made explicit - for example, in the Wood Between the Worlds in Lewis's The Magician's Nephew - and puts it at the centre. (My only work of portal fantasy, the short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?", was directly inspired by Zelazny, and goes a step further, putting the portal itself, and not the multiverse, in the centre.)

There's an obvious appeal for children and adults alike in the idea of a different and more wonderful world, where people like you or who you can identify with are more important and significant than you are, and have thrilling adventures. Really, a lot of genre fiction, portal fantasy or not, is working in the same emotional territory, but portal fantasy explicitly offers the chance that we might escape, even if only for a time, from our mundane lives and problems to somewhere more colourful and exciting (though also more dangerous). Some of the questions it helps us to answer are: Who else might I be or become? Can I be a leader, a hero, a worker of wonders? What kind of companions do I need to achieve that? And it takes us somewhere strange and wondrous, which is enjoyable in itself. And then it brings us back home, and sometimes it even asks: what now? What changes in our world because of what we've experienced elsewhere? How do I be, in my mundane life, the person I learned to be in the Otherworld?

One way you could look at it is that fantastical literature is itself a portal to other worlds of adventure, in which we can explore other identities and roles for ourselves. And as more perspectives get admitted into the literature of the fantastic, so the places we can explore and the roles we take on only become more varied and interesting.

Spread the word
Nov 02

New Series: Realm Agents

Today I'm launching the first book of my new series, Realm Agents, set in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. (Amazon links in this post are affiliate links.)

I've decided to call it a new series, even though it features characters from earlier books and takes place in the same setting, mainly because it's a genre shift. Really, what it is is intensifying a few elements that were already present; there have been action scenes, mysteries, and steampunk/magepunk technology in previous books, but I'm now moving them up front and calling the result a secondary-world fantasy steampunk techno-thriller.

Capital Crimes cover

In a techno-thriller, the technology itself plays a key role, and that's definitely the case here. The first book, just released, is called Capital Crimes, and is set in the new, modern capital of Koslin: New Koslinmouth. Part of the "new series" aspect is choosing an area of the setting that I haven't explored much before, though we did get a glimpse of it in Illustrated Gnome News. Part of the "techno-thriller" aspect is that it's literally a new part of the setting, built with leading-edge technology as the planned capital of the newly united realm.

New Koslinmouth is home to semi-automated trams, freight pods running beneath the streets, a port for skyships using a magical navigation system, and, above all, the Realm Ledger - a huge primitive computer, running on punched cards, cogs, light, and magic, through which most of the realm's business is transacted. (Rosie Printer comes up with the idea in the novella Hope Persists, available as a bonus to my mailing list.)

The thing about new technologies is that they can create losers as well as winners, and the losers created by the Realm Ledger - as a matter of quite deliberate policy - are the dwarves, who formerly were the people you had to deal with if you wanted to do anything related to finance, banking, or currency. Now that the realm of Koslin is in a low-key economic war with the dwarves, that couldn't be allowed to stand. But that makes the Realm Ledger a huge target for those dwarves who are especially... direct in the way they conduct their business.

Standing against them are the courageous Realm Agents, including Agent Piston, who we first met as an eager youth in Illustrated Gnome News. Despite his gnomish heritage, he doesn't know much about technology - that's part of why he joined the agents - so when someone starts stealing from the freight tubes, he consults an old school friend, Precision, one of the first gnome women to become an engineer.

As the scope of the crimes they're investigating escalates, they're going to have to go where no gnome willingly ventures - into an unreformed dwarfhold, where gnomes are still effectively enslaved.

I believe I've increased the action and tension, compared with earlier books, while not losing the elements of character and setting that my current readers enjoy. I've also created an entry point for new readers; my new editor (who enjoyed it hugely) hadn't read the previous Gryphon Clerks novels, but she found it easy to orient herself to the world. Think of it, if you like, as a standalone novel with bits of backstory that just happen to also be frontstory in other books.

I've very nearly finished the first draft of the sequel, Underground War, also set in New Koslinmouth and featuring Piston and Precision, along with other characters old and new. Briar Heathlake, my personal favourite of all the Gryphon Clerks characters, has a minor role; her gentleman-friend, Leading Agent Active, is more central. And I have reasonably well-developed ideas for a third book, this time taking place in the even higher-tech setting of the Research Institutes (established in Mister Bucket for Assembly). After that, plans are indefinite; it will partly depend on how popular the series is. I have fun writing them, and I think lots of people will have fun reading them if they find out about them - so tell your friends!

You can get Capital Crimes at Amazon; I'm putting it up initially at 99c for a short while, to get momentum at the launch. It will revert to the usual $2.99 after that, so get in quick.

Spread the word