27 December 2013

The Desolation of Smaauwwwg

Just as with the first outing, the middle of part of Peter Jackson's extended The Hobbit fanfiction is visually awesome, has great action scenes and is about as tightly focused as a ball of wool after a kitten's been at it.  By adding all the stuff Gandalf is off doing, the story reads far more as Lord of the Rings: The Prequel, and while it's still fun that way, it takes away quite a bit from the story.

The introduction of Tauriel, with an entirely irrelevant plotline about the need for the elves to involve themselves in the fight against the dark, only emphasises this prequel feeling - though on the whole Tauriel's story is one of the most interesting in this particular segment of the trilogy and she's a lot of fun to watch and almost manages to ignore the half-formed suggestion of a love plot wedged in with her "we are part of this war" theme.  I was sorry to see that while Tauriel was introduced so that there could be a female character doing stuff, Bard's two daughters are used for screaming and hiding under tables.

Smaauwwwg himself was all kinds of awesome, as was the humungous piles of gold scenes.

24 December 2013

Year's End and Side Projects

Happy end of year break to those who enjoy it!

As a side project (since I have my end-of-year break from work) I've started a tumblr called Hugo Eligible Art(ists).  This is related to the earlier discussion about the scarcity of female artists nominated for the Hugo Awards.  Since I'm nominating and voting in the upcoming Hugos I figured the simplest way to decide who I'm going to nominate is to collect All the Art! :D  Not just limited to female artists, but any artists eligible.  It's a really interesting project for me, because I love SFF art, but usually don't have the faintest idea who is behind the illustrations.

I've been having fun emailing lots of publishers and artists (and the Hugo Committee), but the project is still in its early stages and could always use more publicity if you want to share the link.  It should be an _enormous_ collection of art if it gets off the ground, particularly including nominees on the Best Fan Artist category (I'm still trying to work out precisely what's eligible there).

01 December 2013

Bones of the Fair release

Bones of the Fair has now been released into the wild!  Hope you all like it. :)

I'll add links as it promulgates across the various platforms.

As a promotional extra, Champion of the Rose will be $0.99 during December.

Those who follow the blog will notice I've changed the cover - I decided I wanted to see more of Julie's art, so got rid of the frame concept.

This was a fun book to write - mainly because of Aspen, who is one of the most relentlessly upbeat characters I'm ever likely to produce, and has the funniest way of describing people.

Next up for me is some time working on the various books I've started more recently, along with The Sleeping Life (and maybe Wellspring).  Because I have so many books on the hop at once, there's a good chance that I'll end up not releasing anything at all next year, or at least not until the very end.  It rather depends on how I divide my time.  I expect to have a lot of fun fooling around with all those different worlds, though!

27 November 2013

The Artistic Superiority of Tits Out

Recently Julie Dillon, the first female artist to be nominated for a Best Professional Artist Hugo in close to 30 years, posted on Tumblr a gigantic compilation of pictures by women artists, stating:
This year, I was incredibly honored to be nominated for a Hugo award in the Best Professional Artist category, but I was a little shocked to find out there hadn’t been another woman nominated in that category since Rowena Morrill in 1986. That’s more than a little ridiculous, considering there are so many women artists out there, they are all amazing, and they all need more visibility and recognition.

And the question of course is, how is the disparity in nominations possible?  There are clearly a ton of female artists out there.  Quite a lot of them are working in the SFF field, producing covers that would come to the attention of the SFF community.  Why then are so many male artists being acknowledged, and female artists somehow failing to exist when award season rolls around?

A couple of years ago I joined the Tumblr crowd, mostly as a lurker, and one of the accounts I followed was an art reblogger.  Every day without fail gorgeous art would appear in my Tumblr feed - a selection of representative works duly accredited, with a link to the artist's site.  And it was awesome!  Lovely art, very impressive.  I've discovered tons of awesome artists through Tumblr. (Euclase, I am in awe).

But as a side-effect of this particular Tumblr feed my dashboard was suddenly full of half-naked ladies.  Tiny, cutesy women defying the laws of gravity.  Curvy women with their asses in the air.  "Strong" women in that weird pose where you can somehow see their front and their back at the same time.

Now, there are plenty of women out there who like a fine pair of breasts.  And professional artists are generally working to some sort of order - a request from an art director, a specified scene from a book, a strong imperative from marketing to match other covers that work.  Artists don't all get to decide what they depict, and how they depict it.  So a percentage of "tits out" poses are to order.  But I started looking at the names of the artists behind all those sexy sexy ladies and noticed a distinct correlation between (my guess at) author gender and amount of nakedness, and type of pose.

When the statistics regarding the Hugo artist nominations were raised these last few months, a  connection formed for me between that Tumblr feed featuring so many naked ladies, and also with this rather awesome cartoon of Batman drawn for the female gaze.  And when I saw Julie's incredible compilation, I could not help but notice a rather outstandingly small percentage of asses raised in the air.  There was certainly the occasional breast, but vastly more complete coverage or restrained cleavage, and far fewer women in invitingly submissive poses.

Now it would be ridiculous for me to say that the sole reason for the disparity in Hugo nominations is the presence or lack of tits in a particular artist's work.  There's clearly a lot more going on here than (het cis-)gender preferences impacting on voting (just as I cannot overlook the from-the-beginning presence of individuals attracted to men in the science fiction community, with their own preferences where art is concerned).

All I can really do is point, ask the question, and hope in future we see more female artists on the Hugo ballot.

17 November 2013

Contrast

Contrast is a puzzler/jumping game which - while quite short - is definitely recommended.  Particularly because although challenging in places, I could get through the puzzles without resorting to a walkthrough!  The sign of a good puzzle.

In Contrast you play Dawn, an acrobat who exists in a curious in-between world, visible only to the child Didi, whose life is complicated by family money troubles and a dad trying to make good.


Didi fearlessly sneaks out at night to poke her nose into all the things her parents are trying to keep from her, and happily calls on her not-quite-imaginary friend to get her into places she can't reach herself.  The gameplay involves Dawn's ability to shift in and out of a shadow realm, which turns light, dark and shadow into a mechanic where a staircase can be created by a lantern, and a merry-go-round a spectacular and ever-moving jumping puzzle.



Along with some lovely visuals, the Torch Song soundtrack adds a gorgeous, floaty noir background to what proved to be an excellent game.  [And at a mere $15, well worth the money.]

03 November 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 20 : Being Human

Part  20 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is in two parts at Valjeanne Jeffer's tumblr. This month we're discussing fantasy and being human.

31 October 2013

Self-publishers and Posterity

The Library Journal's Annoyed Librarian column recently published an article, Self-publishing and Libraries, and a follow-up, For the Self-Publishers.  The gist of the first post is:
  • "Publishers are supposed to stand between the public and awful novels and “inspirational” works."
  • [Speculation about the motivations of self-publishers (which are presumably significantly different from trade published authors).]
  • "But with almost 400,000 self-published books a year, the amount bought or preserved by libraries is going to be negligible. In the future, it will be like the vast majority of these books never existed."
  • "Or maybe that’s true now. If an ebook is published in the wilderness and nobody reads it, does it still count as a book?"
The second post, responding to comments on the first post, covers the following:
  • Trade published books are not necessarily going to be better edited than a good quality self-published book.
  • Library users want the most popular books, not niche books.
  • Librarians rely on certain sources (Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, etc) for reviews to allow them to make book purchase choices.
  • Librarians do not have the time or budget to evaluate quality individually, so a librarian is infinitely more likely to choose a trade published book which has been reviewed by a trusted source.  Most of these sources do not deal with self-publishers (or only do so on an exploitative payment basis).
These posts inspired the usual eye-rolling in self-published circles, but (ignoring the misplaced suggestion of self-pub = poor quality) their overall gist appears to me simple common sense.  There are a lot of books out there, and librarians usually have a limited budget and even less time to spend.  They're going to focus on popular, reviewed and 'trusted' books.

I disagree, however, on the question of posterity.

Print on demand and ebooks have completely altered the question of how long a book is remembered.  Unless the book world goes through another revolution, every book I release will be available for as long as I allow it to be available and then it will linger on on pirate sites and eventually public domain.  For as long as there is a version of the internet, my books will remain.

I already have over ten releases.  Each year (except for the ones where I am exceptionally slack), I will release a new book.  Physical copies of my books are purchased by readers who particularly like my work (or just prefer to read from paper).  Some of these will circulate to second hand book stores.  Two of my books have finalled in 'creditable' awards.  I am linked three times in Wikipedia, though probably don't quite meet the notability requirements to warrant a page of my own.

I've never been reviewed by Library Journal or Publisher's Weekly and don't really expect to be.  I have been reviewed by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Neumeier, and believe me, the Library Journal isn't going to make me squee nearly as much as the idea that People I Read Have Read Me.  It's possible for any of my books - new or already released - to become a break out hit, or at least a minor success, but even if I simply continue on at my mildly improving growth rate, I have still made tens of thousands of sales.  There are people who consider me an auto-buy author, which (along with re-reading) is one of the biggest compliments a writer can have.

I do not suggest, however, that libraries are irrelevant.  Libraries were my lifeblood, back when I was a kid in a poor family who got new books on occasions like birthdays, if I was lucky.  For a book-a-day girl like I was, libraries were essential.  And the collection of the libraries I had access to shaped me.  My libraries had lots of Norton and McCaffrey and McKinley and Jones, and thus for me science fiction and fantasy has always revolved around female writers.  I gather that some libraries somehow failed to have much if anything in the way of SFF written by women, and thus some people actually don't associate SFF with women.  [That's a hard idea for me to get my head around.]

For the kid I was, growing up in a family where you got books from the library or for your birthday or not at all, a writer not 'preserved' by a library would simply not exist.  But that kid still would have grown up, and transitioned to second hand stores, and then the luxury of buying brand new books on the day of release - sometimes in hardback!

And that was back then.  If I was myself, and ten, in 2013, that once-a-year gift would have been an ereader, and I would be fully appreciating Project Gutenberg, and the plethora of free ebooks used as promotional tools by publishers, and I would shamelessly download pirated books because, after all, it was the books which were my lifeblood, and libraries only the intravenous system which delivered them.

The system has grown.

I started this post because Flannery, Readventurer Extraordinaire, excitedly tweeted to me that she'd seen Stray sitting out on display at her local library. In the nearly four years since I first published a book, this is the first - the very first - time I've had an "in the wild" sighting of any of my books. I was so excited I demanded asked her to go take me a photo. So there we have it: my book in a library, ready to give some unsuspecting teen what Norton and McCaffrey and McKinley and Jones gave me.



Flannery checked the library system, and there are five copies of each of the Touchstone books, and four of And All the Stars. King County Library System is apparently the busiest in the US, and evidently has managed to spare a little bit of time and budget for the occasional self-publisher. [I suspect it was making the Cybils finals which may have triggered the purchase - that definitely did raise my profile generally.] What a lovely picture that is, Stray being a real book and not looking out of place at all.  My excitement demonstrates that libraries are still an important part of the system, but they're not the only part of the system.

My posterity's doing fine, thanks very much.

Edit: Now with a bonus picture of my books in Minette Public Library!  [Or some of them - the rest were apparently checked out!]

Gosh I write skinny books.

24 October 2013

Sales to Date

At the beginning of the year I noted that I'd hit 10,000 sales by the end of 2012.  Prompted by Patty Jansen's informative post, I've updated my figures for those interested in self-pub stats.

Sales by year:

(Date range is 1 December 2010 to 30 September 2013.  Freebies and not yet reported sales not included.)

Sales by store:

Amazon 17832
Apple 224 
Barnes & Noble 677 
BordersAU 2 
CreateSpace 437 
FNAC 4 
Kobo (via Smashwords) 42 
Kobo Writing Life 141 
LivrariaCultura 1 
Smashwords.com 347 
Sony 29 

Earnings:

I've been totting up last year's figures for my taxes (which run from 1 July to 30 June in Australia) and my (gross) royalty income looks to be around $16,600.  This is less than last financial year, despite what the sales numbers suggest - but mainly because Amazon pays by cheque about two months after you earn the money.

Popularity:

As you can see, The Touchstone Trilogy is still by far my most popular books.  Partly that's the power of series and first book freebies, but it's also simply very popular and gets very good word of mouth.  Stained Glass Monsters remains my least successful (ironic, given it's one of my favourites).

It wasn't until I'd totted these figures up that I could see that both And All the Stars and Hunting had performed quite well for stand alones.  Their numbers will no doubt drop off now we're well past their release dates, but I'd expect to continue to sell several hundred each year.

Sales Venues:

It would be nice to believe that sales will continue to improve at this rate, eventually giving me a comfortable income on which to write full time, but as Patty pointed out recently, self-publishing is a very unpredictable industry.  I was completely unaffected by the Kobo debacle - but as you can see it's not a primary market of mine.  [It will be interesting to see if that changes after a Kobo-related promotion I'm theoretically participating in at the end of the year.]

Like most self-publishers, Amazon is by far my best outlet.  Both Barnes & Noble and Apple improved this past year as a direct result of Bookbub, which is a cheap books notification service which has been one of the few effective promotion tools lately.

Future:

The big money in self-publishing tends to be in certain genres, and also in writing series.  Unfortunately I don't think I have the writing skills/style to do well in the big money genres (thrillers, romance and erotica can be difficult to write!), but I am at least writing series books this year.  Typically, I'm writing the beginnings of three series at once (while finishing off Bones) and the things I'm interested in writing tend to not match up with the types of books which become immensely popular.

But I am slowly finding a repeat audience.  And I'm having fun - which is probably what counts most for me. :)

05 October 2013

Titles, titles

So, currently I'm working on four series at once.  I often jump back and forth between books, and this suits my mood at the moment.  I'm on track to get Bones of the Fair out in November (I work on it on the train in the morning when I'm at my writing best).

One of the books is the first in a series I've been itching to start for a while - a "virtual reality game" plot involving AI's, personal spaceships, duelling, and all sorts of over the top and unlikely things (along with addressing some of the questions of gender and identity which arise playing avatars online).  The game (which is called Dream Speed) is set in a post-singularity universe, and while I know the name of the first volume (Snug Ship), I've been tossing around what to call the series.

So, given that you know nothing about this book except that it's about someone playing a virtual reality game involving spaceships in the far future, which of these series titles would catch your attention?
  • Next Level
  • The Singularity Game
  • Dream Speed
There's a poll in the right hand column of the blog, so feel free to select one, or comment on this post.  [I'm sure I'll think of more names in the year or so it takes me to write a book, but starting impressions can't hurt.

01 October 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 19 : Evil and the Fantastic

Part 19 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Warren Rochelle's blog. This month we're discussing evil and the fantastic.

16 September 2013

The women of Riddick (minor spoilers)

Riddick, third in the movie series, has a weaker plotline, and a big drop in how it treats women, which is quite something to say given how women have always walked a grey line in these movies.  Pitch Black was a real rarity in SF (and any other genre) terms, because it appeared to be a story about a morally ambiguous woman - right up until her plotline was sacrificed on the altar of a charismatic man.

Fry is not a bad person, but in a moment of peril she puts her life over those of her human cargo - and then has to step up and be responsible for that cargo.  The story is basically Fry's story - and the initial script basically reversed the final deaths - Riddick dies so Fry can live.  Although it is an unfortunate ditching of interesting woman in favour of ultra-cool guy, Pitch Black is more powerful the way it ends, and that final protest of Riddick's: "Not for me".  Our expectations are turned on our heads when Riddick, the dark soul, the murderer theoretically gone beyond the moral event horizon, survives while Fry was the "last girl" whose journey of redemption we had been following is killed saving him.

Nor is Fry the only interesting female in the movie - there's the cynical (if unable to duck) Sharon, and the girl-in-disguise Jack.  They're all there trying to survive, and they appear whole and independent.

We don't see any of their breasts.

The Chronicles of Riddick, while  a serious U-turn in terms of tone, gave us more of Jack's story and her positioning of Riddick as a father figure.  The movie also included a variety of other women - from an air elemental to an ambitious wife.  Again, this is as much Jack's journey as it is Riddick's, and again the woman whose journey we've followed is killed for Riddick.

So, going into the third movie, Riddick, my expectations weren't entirely positive.  I expected a movie which showed off how hard-core Riddick was - which is precisely what I got - but I also expected an interesting female character or two, most likely ending up fridged.  That I most definitely didn't get.

It's particularly odd because the movie goes out of its way to parallel Pitch Black, making the 'return to before' situation the crux of the plot - it's doesn't make for half so powerful a story, but there's fun in watching Riddick being harder than hard.

It's not fun watching the women in this story.

There are three female appearances in Riddick.  The first is four naked ladies in the bed of the Necromonger ruler.  They did some languid writhing.

The second is a captive of one of the bounty hunters - a minor bounty who it is clearly suggested has been sexually abused by her captor.  Her brief appearance serves only to demonstrate that one of the bounty hunters is a horrible person.

The third is Dahl, one of the 'less bad' bounty hunters.  A no-nonsense sniper (with some physical resemblance to Fry), Dahl:

1. Is hit on by the extra-bad bounty hunter.
2. Tells him she's not interested in men.
3. Is shown topless giving herself a basin bath while Riddick watches from outside the window.
4. Fights off an assault from the extra-bad bounty hunter.
5. Exchanges sex-badinage with Riddick.
6. Is shown "straddling" Riddick during the final rescue scene.

She doesn't have any emotional journey, beyond some ambiguity as to whether she is attracted to Riddick despite being (presumably) a lesbian.

It's hard to believe this was made by the same creative team as the first two movies.

04 September 2013

Paper and Ebook copy bundling

As you may or may not know, Amazon is launching something called Kindle MatchBook, where the paper copy of a book will be bundled with a discounted or free copy of the ebook.  This launches in October some time.

I saw no strong reason not to participate (I don't usually like to advantage one retailer over others, but my paper sales are very small compared to my ebook sales), so for those of you who buy paper copies and like to have e-copies, I've signed my books up for the ebook to be bundled free with the purchase of physical books available through Amazon.

28 August 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 18 : Mythical Creatures

Welcome to Part 18 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, a roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature! Today, Sylvia Kelso and Warren Rochelle join me in discussing mythical creatures.

Andrea K Höst

What makes a mythical creature?

Let me tell you about the darati.
Twice the height of a tall man, but very narrow, they dwell in birch forests: their pale mottled skin providing a natural camouflage, while the trunks offer them support and shield them from winds which might knock them from their feet. Darati are patient hunters. They stand, and they wait, usually near water sources, or bushes heavy with edible berries. When prey comes within reach, they exhale a thin mist which disorients and makes drowsy. There is no future for any who fall asleep at the feet of a darati.
Now, let me tell you about dragons.

Your reaction to that second sentence is the difference between fantasy and myth. Darati are not mythical creatures, but rather fantastical ones. They have no weight, and the word 'darati' is as thin a conjuring as the creature I spent the last few minutes creating. No creature I will ever invent could hope to bring with it the tidal wave of association, the almost contemptuous familiarity, the endless flood of possibility in the statement: Here be dragons.

Beautiful, dangerous, villainous, munificent, terrible, transformative. Are dragons rivers, or greed or dinosaurs? Yes, they are. Dragons are thousand stories, old and new. A mental image imprinted into the common id. A different image, perhaps, particularly as you move from one culture to the next, but a word with an almost unrivalled strength. It was not so long ago that dragons were as real as elephants.

Here be dragons. A phrase used on maps. A deliberate conjury not of the unknown, but of myth. Here, the mapmaker suggests, might exist those things that we have all heard of, but are not here, within the bounds of this map. Beyond the borders of the known world live not unspecified ideas of monsters, but all the ones the stories have told us are out there. This outside area is where the mermaids, the rocs, the pegasi enjoyed something resembling existence. The darati never lived there.

The choice to use a mythical creature in a fantasy is a double-edged sword. There is an immense, immediate emotional and intellectual reaction to the word – the idea – of dragon. But this reaction can range from "I love dragon stories!" to "Not another dragon story". Readers will bring their pre-established idea of what a dragon is to the story, and compare your story to all the other stories about dragons, and ask if you're doing anything new – or be disappointed when Your dragon is not Their dragon.  And your dragon will never quite be 'yours' either, because it started from a base template of myth built up by your own experience of dragon stories.

There are, of course, more obscure mythical creatures. I came across a new one to me when researching the Food in Fantasy topic, and discovered the Cinnamon Bird. More obscure mythical creatures will perform their conjury only for the select few who have heard of them, but even so they have a certain something extra. So why use the darati? Why invent from scratch creatures whose name performs no conjury, whose existence lacks the resonance and power of myth?

Perhaps simply because all myths had a beginning, a first time that tale was told. There's always room for another story.

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.

Sylvia Kelso

“Mythical” in this title cd mean, firstly, non-existent, including invented beasts, or secondly, beasts out of myth and legend, non-existent or not.

A fantasy writer inventing a beast naturally asks, Can I make this seem original? A fantasy writer looking to a legendary beast – a dragon, a unicorn - *knows* that s/he faces the answer given by one of Barbara Hambly’s vampires, when asked if they had ever tried to use other ways of getting blood: “Everything has been tried.”

And with the famous mythical beasts everything HAS been tried. Yet, perversely, if you do use/recycle one, yours will never be *quite* the same as every other version. If only because your writing style, hopefully in a good sense, is not like anyone else’s.

Way back in the last century, before I ever wrote anything that cd. be labeled fantasy, I did decide to write what I called a fairytale. It had only two parameters: It started with “once upon a time” and it had a monster/weird thing per chapter. At the time my brain was stuffed with enthusiastic research into antiquity and the second parameter was a cake-walk. Said “monsters” included an Assyrian hawk-headed god, a chimera, of sorts, a serpent oracle, a couple of Gilgamesh Scorpion Men, and, among others – a unicorn.

I did not actually think,
how can I make this unicorn original? Nor did I rehearse all the versions I knew, right down from James V of Scotland’s famous “Fenced Unicorn” tapestry that I finally saw in Stirling Castle, a building replete with Scotland’s own heraldic beast. I didn’t even recall the airiest and most delicate of the modern sugar and good-magic incarnations, in Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Mine just came through the avenues of the story – written in longhand, omg – and – um – there it was.

At this point, Our Hero and his Faithful Sidekick (I was also very traditional about questers in those days) had passed the set-up stage, weathered their early tests and were facing Serious Danger Number One – Lost in Desert During Murderous Pursuit. Which had modulated to Lost in Desert in a Sand-storm. Anddd:

Perhaps it was the thirst that made them heedless when the wind’s regular onslaught broke into veering gusts; and perhaps it was the thirst that hid from them the way the sand now crunched thin and hard under their feet; certainly it was the thirst, locking them into a stupor of endurance, which concealed Sweetwater’s true avenger until it was too late.

Two sand flurries had clashed, an eddy recoiling upon itself, and it came upon them through the curtain, so all they saw was a flash of solider, linearly moving white; all they heard was the crr-unch crr-unch of approaching hooves matched to the grunts of a galloping beast. Then something hit the mare’s right side with the impact of a new-fired cannonball.

The shock bowled her right off her legs and over the prince at her left shoulder, down in the sand beyond him with a great horse scream of pain and shock and fright. The overset prince caught one flash of milk-grey belly and thrashing legs as they arced over him; a sector of open sand; then at right angles to the rest a pair of white, driving hocks that plunged like a fired bow and were gone.

He was rolling in the sand, a snapped spear haft vertical at his elbow, Ervan and the bay a mist shadow beyond his feet. Beside him, all her side a flaring scarlet shield of blood, the mare was trying to get up. And beyond her the attacker had wheeled to complete the kill.

Ripples of silver hide glistened through the sand murk, slender steel muscles played above cloven yellow hooves. It had a horse’s head but a goat’s beard, a pure gold eye, cold and impassive as a surgeon’s, and from the silver forehead a length of gleaming, whorled tortoise-shell was levelled like a spear. The gleam was a lacquer of fresh blood. The goat’s chin tucked under as it trained its weapon on the fallen mare, the delicate hocks were flexing like tempered steel.

The prince struggled onto an elbow. As he did so he saw the pain and terror in his mare’s eyes, and suddenly the sand mist went a bloody, mottled red. His hand shot to the snapped spear. He wrenched it out and floundered up, yelling, “Come on!”

Though it came out as a mere cough the movement sufficed. The unicorn’s eye flicked. Quick as a great cat it changed aim in mid-career, leapt the mare with one feather-light spring and charged the prince.

He had dropped on one knee. Now he planted the other on the broken spear butt and leant it up and outward, gripping it in both hands. The blade was just above his head. He knew the haft was too short, he knew that even if he aimed true the unicorn would transfix him, and he did not care. He had forgotten all about the Quest. He knew only that his innocent mare was dying, and he meant to have her revenge.

The golden eye leapt at him, the nostril flaring like a great red rose. He heard its quick breath and somehow admired the splendid force with which its hind feet punched the sand. I shall die with honour, he thought, and dropping the spear point below the round ringed boss of the levelled horn, he trained it between the cushions of that sleek silver breast.

But suddenly a shadow sprang over him. Something flashed; there was a brazen scream, an axe-like clunk! A silver projectile hurtled past, a spray of blood drenched his face, and the swing’s impetus dropped Ervan on his knees beside the prince, yelling, “Got him! Got it! Look!”

Out in the fog the unicorn pivoted, a splendid, deadly javelin haft, rearing, beating the air with its forefeet, braying with rage and pain; and the prince saw what Ervan had got.

The horn had been lopped. Its point was gone, and the trunk played like a fountain, three or four simultaneous sprays of blood.

No, my unicorn wasn’t pretty, or in the least simpatico. I did hope it was powerfully vivid, menacing, and very definitely Elsewhere. But the creative unit, aka the Black Gang, were operating in their usual mode, right down to the lopped horn, which, like the heads of cattle I had seen dehorned back home in Australia, would spout not one but two or three jets of blood.

The BG’s nature emerged even more clearly at the Last Major Battle, a confrontation with the Scorpion Men which was going to be awesome, a heraldic swash-and-buckle, larger than life – in fact, mythical. Unfortunately, the Black Gang extrapolated the consequences of swinging a sword two-handed at a six-foot high monster while standing on an ice lake, and ye heraldry degenerated into an ice-hockey pile-up over a collapsed Rugby scrum.

The consequences were definitely catastrophic, but the actual event? Traumatic, ferocious, bloody. Yep. Mythical? Well, er – no. It seems if I do mythical, with beasts or anything else, it very definitely turns out nearly all my own.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” appeared in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Books, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in October 2013.

Warren Rochelle

Necessary Monsters

According to Jorge Luis Borges, “…there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster …” (The Book of Imaginary Beings xii). It is what these monsters, the mythical beasts that populate the wild countries of the fantastic, might be necessary for that I want to consider briefly here. What some of the parts do they play in the tales we read (and write) of these countries—as necessary monsters are they symbol, metaphor? Archetypes of the monstrous, evil—or rather something more amoral, wildness, the uncontrolled?


For Le Guin, the answer as to what her dragons are necessary for might be, to all of these questions, yes, more or less. In a previous essay, “The Emersonian Choice: Connections between Dragons and Humans in Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (Extrapolation 47.3, 417-426), I have discussed this at some length. Here, briefly, dragons and humans were once “all one people, one race, winging and speaking the True Language.” Some became more in “love with flight and wildness” and “Others of the dragon-people came to care little for flight, but gathered up treasure, wealth, things made, things learned …” (Le Guin, Tehanu 12). They become two people. Dragons choose to be; we chose to make. Dragons choose to be Nature; we choose to be active in Nature—and learning this, for both dragons and humans in Earthsea, becomes an essential act—for humans of being fully human.

Tolkien writes of the necessity of monsters in a different way in his famous essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics.” Originally a lecture, he took on the critics who wanted to downplay the “fantastical elements” in the poem. He argued, instead, they were the key to the narrative, and the poem should studied as a work of art. In other words, Beowulf needs his monsters, his mythical beasts, Grendel and his mother, and the dragon. To be the hero he wants to be, he must have monsters to fight. He is the Good; they are the Evil. He, to be a hero, must fight evil.

To return to Le Guin, she argues, in her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” that not only must the hero, the Good Guy, have monsters, or Evil to fight, but that good must not just fight evil, it must embrace it—“this monster is an integral part of the man and cannot be denied …” (in Language of the Night 56). The dark, the monster, “The shadow is on the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind” (59) and if we are to live “in the real world, [we] must admit that the hateful, the evil, exist within [ourselves]” (60). We are the monsters, the mythical beasts.

But, are all mythical beasts monsters, are they all dark emblems of evil? What of unicorns? Surely these mythical beasts are not malevolent. Well, it depends on the story. According to A Natural History of the Unnatural World, unicorns are “fierce, wild and untameable by nature,” but “[they become] meek and gentle with [their] young and in the presence of human virgins” (78). In the Thurber classic, “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the title beast is indeed untamed, but it is not tearing up the garden, rather it is “cropping the roses.” It eats the lily from the man’s hand. Gentle and wild, a “mythical beast”—and perhaps there, perhaps not. Perhaps here it is more about believing that such beasts do have a reality. But the man does use the unicorn to get rid of his wife; he does lie to the psychiatrist; he is not wholly innocent, no matter how justified his actions may seem to most readers (including this one).

Which brings me back to the beginning: necessary monsters, essential metaphors, living symbols. We are both dark and light, and the dark is integral to being human as much as the light. Yes, monsters are necessary and sometimes we find them in our myths. Sometimes we find them by looking into our mirrors.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His short story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012). His short fiction can be found in such journals as Icarus, Collective Fallout, North Carolina Literary Review, Romance and Beyond, Forbidden Lines, and Aboriginal Science Fiction. He is at work on a novel about a gay werewolf and his godling boyfriend and a collection of gay-themed speculative fiction, in which all the stories have happy endings, sort of.   Please see http://warrenrochelle.com

21 August 2013

Contradictions

This is the cat who will run a mile if the slightest drop of water strikes her furry brown back.

20 August 2013

Gone Home (no spoilers)

Gone Home is a recently-released indie game which I guess could be called forensic story discovery.  You're Katie, just back from a grand European holiday - only to find your family home deserted.  You explore.

The gameplay revolves around picking up various documents and objects which trigger a voice over letter from your sister telling you what's been going on with her life - and other documents which give you a new insight into your parents, until you finally put together the story of why there's no-one in the house.

It's an intriguing piece - the voice over is beautifully done - and has a big dose of nineties nostalgia which is fun all of itself.  Though I found the game a little short, I was kept curious till the end - and it's very cheap, so well worth checking out for a different sort of game - or a new way of telling a story.

18 August 2013

Status Update: Drafts and Games

This has been a go-slow writing time for me after pushing myself to get Hunting out.  Drafting Pyramids is fairly research-heavy comparatively, since though I have a passing familiarity with the various cultures I'm playing with - and intend to distort them almost out of recognition - I still need to increase my understanding of their starting points before the alternate circumstances kick in (technically the alternate starts in 18th Dynasty Egypt, but the main impacts don't hit 'til later).

Not that I haven't started getting words on the page.  This book (and the next few) are roughly plotted out in my head, but I've put it on hold for the moment to prepare to switch to Bones.  [Er, prepare by being distracted into writing some smut.]  Bones will be done by the end of the year (there's really only some revision and adjustment to be done on that - the first draft was at about the 9/10 point).  [I'm debating pushing it over to the beginning of January just for award cut off dates convenience - we'll see.]

I'll start on that once my mental energy has recovered - it's been chewed up the last few weeks by a somewhat stressful project at my day job, and entertaining domestic issues, not least:


That was fun to come home to.  Both the power and the phone line attach to that pole, so, yeah...

The biggest consumer of my free time for the next few months is likely to be Final Fantasy XIV.  FFXIV was the second MMO released in the Final Fantasy series and tanked soon after launch thanks to severe lack of content.  It was pulled, revised, and has just gone into open beta.

It has swallowed me whole.

Fortunately I do most of my quality writing on the train to work in the morning, so this does not mean all writing progress stops.  And the mid-level doldrums are sure to hit and make the game less attractive.

Final Fantasy XI was my first full-on MMO.  I lived and breathed it for a while, and then crashed and quit.  That seems to be my standard operating procedure with MMOs.

I always name my MMO characters after my book characters, and FFXIV has Rennyn.  This is Rennyn's current mid-level mage costume (it's not class specific - her main class is Thaumaturge, and I am looking forward to that armour set very much).


I'll be playing on Gungnir, if anyone wants to say "Hi".  You'll probably find me fishing.

24 July 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 17 : Intrusive Fantasy

Part 17 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Chris Howard's blog. This month we're discussing intrusive fantasy.

21 July 2013

The Absence Sue

Mary Sue, as first defined in the Star Trek fandom, was an original character introduced to the Trek universe whose presence bent the plot to serve a wish-fulfilment fantasy of a fanfic's author.  Mary Sue was a self-insertion valorised to the detriment of the existing characters.

This definition has been expanded to include "any authorial self-insertion" even in original fiction, (and in the worst instances distorted to substantively cover "any female who is valorised at all, in any circumstance"), but lately I've been thinking back on the occurrence of Mary Sue as a fanfic insertion and wondering at the purpose she served.

In particular, I've been thinking about Mary Sue in relation to this web comic by Interrobang Studios.  It's a very funny comic!  In the first episode, "Mary Sue Must Die", the Enterprise suffers a Sue, and the crew takes drastic action.  But it's the second episode, and specifically this page, which has been bubbling over in the back of my mind.  This episode, "The Wrath of Sue", involves a veritable plague of Sues, which have spread from the Trek universe and gone to take over other stories.

The page features a bunch of different men characters from stories I had enjoyed over the years - represented here as "the greatest minds in the Universe" and I found myself saying: "Speaking of Sues...".

But, of course, these were men characters with their own stories, and thus the plot cannot be distorted to serve them, as it was shaped around them in the first place.  The Doctor and Sherlock there most definitely fit the "overloaded with virtues" criteria, but not the Enterprise crew.  There we have Kirk the action guy, Spock the Smartest, Sulu the Swordsman, Bones the Cynic and medical genius, Scotty the reliable, and Uhura the linguist.

Then it hit me.  The Smurfette Principle.  The stories where Mary Sue was born, and where we hear the most about her obnoxiousness, are the stories where the main characters are almost all men - and all different types of men - and perhaps one main female character (who usually doesn't get to do as much cool stuff as the guys).  A male fan of Trek has a range of male characters in which to identify, who are all cool and valorised in their own different ways.  A female character either gets to identify with the male characters, or with Uhura (who is cool and valorised but is frequently not given much to do in the plot).  The same with female Lord of the Rings fans.  There are a broad range of male characters, one of whom is likely to suit a male reader's personality.  There are no female characters in the Fellowship, and the female characters (particularly in the novels) are either brief appearances, or kept out of the main action.

We don't hear about the plague of Mary Sue inserts in Cardcaptor Sakura fanfic.  Or the Powerpuff Girls.  Sure, there might be a little, but where a story offers a range of female characters, who are not sidelined from the action, a female fan is in the situation which the male fan enjoys in Star Trek or Lord of the Rings.  A range of characters of the gender she identifies with, actively participating in the story as a main player.

And so I ask myself: Is Mary Sue - obnoxious and world-distorting as she can be - simply making up for a lack in the world she has entered?  When we see Mary Sue, should we be deriding the fanfic writer?  Or questioning the gender breakdown of the original universe?

Is Mary Sue in fact Absence Sue, working hard to make up for the 50% of the population missing out on the fun?

16 July 2013

Tomb Raider (2013)

I posted previously on the Tomb Raider reboot, when an executive producer for the game said all sorts of things which made the game sound less than enticing.  But when the game came out, there was a flurry of surprised "It's great!" reviews from various female gamers, so I eventually got around to playing it.

Way back when, I bought my sister a Playstation as a birthday present *cough* and one of the first games we played on it was the original Tomb Raider.  We took turns falling off cliffs, and figuring out where the heck the next handhold might be, and it was fun.  Yeah, Lara's primary outfit was some rather silly short shorts and a tank top (though she did have a lot more [skin-tight] warmer clothing throughout the games).  In one memorable cut scene in Tomb Raider 2, Lara is knocked down by an explosion, the screen goes black, and then the camera pans over these...jagged...teal...mountains.  My sister and I both burst out laughing - it was so gratuitous and ridiculous.

But while there were these occasional bits of fan service, Lara was assured, competent, and unhesitatingly destroyed countless ancient artefacts while mucking over the archaeological record.  Plus there were occasional fits of shooting faceless goons, and a T-Rex.

As a long-time Tomb Raider player, Tomb Raider 2013 mostly held up for me.  It kept me engaged.  I played it through over a few short days.  It wasn't perfect, or entirely unproblematic, but not so offensive as the controversial comments made out.

Gameplay

The beginning was off-putting.  There was a lot of quick play scenes where you had a dramatic cut scene with occasional buttons popping up on screen that you had to press at just the right moment.  And quite a lot of short sliding games which were kind of irritating.  But eventually it evened out to reasonably traditional jumping puzzles (the puzzle part undercut somewhat by a "where to go" display).  Overall the game play was very well done indeed.

Plot (minor spoilers)

The plot is similar to Andre Norton's Sargasso of Space.

Lara's part of an expedition (mostly made up of people who knew her father plus an extremely overdone skeevy professor) looking for a lost civilisation.  They find an island where vicious storms have destroyed countless boats and planes, trapping an entire small town's worth of people on the island.  They must break the power of the storms to get off the island, and deal with the people who have been trapped before them - who have formed a particularly nutty cult.  All the cultists are adult men.  That's because there are uses for girls.  [Presumably uses for women and children as well.  Not sexual uses, though.]  This plot point is fairly inconsistently played out, with the cultists only really showing interest in one of the females from the latest wreck, instead having a high tendency to hang bodies up by their feet (for decoration apparently - with the plethora of deer and chickens on the island there would be no reason to use them for food).

Portrayal of Lara

At the time of the story Lara seems to have just finished college (or is in the later years of college), so I guess would have to be around 22.  She looks sixteen.  Unlike the relatively imposing original Lara, she (and her classmate Sam) are diminutive (and while her bust size is smaller and the short shorts are gone, the tank top is actually a little more revealing than the original).

Lara's companions (other than the skeevy professor) all pipe up with variations on "You're so wonderful Lara", even at the beginning of the story when Lara is still "innocent Lara" (there's actually three character models of Lara - "Innocent Lara", "Lara Croft" and "Survivor Lara" - the difference between them being layers of grime and the stance).  A big deal is made out of her first kill, but then it's slaughter fest...with whimpering.

This is definitely a game attempting to be grimmer, grittier and "more real" than the previous games, which brought out a lot of dissonance between attempts at "game realism" and disbelief raised entirely by the attempts at realism.

Lara's injured from the outset.  A wholly unbelievable scene involving a stick injury to the abdomen, which she pulls out (sheesh!) and she later suffers what I presume to be broken ribs.  But then she gets some pain killers and is fine for the rest of the game.  During her more injured phases, Lara makes lots of little gaspy, whimpery noises (and occasionally shivers pitifully in the rain - but never bothers taking a jacket off any of her kills, even when she heads into the snow).

There are two moments of suggestive touching, both when Lara is captive and a bad guy is being dominant over her (and yet this also does seem to be an island of men entirely disinterested in doing sex things to captives).  Which, because the thought is raised because of that suggestive touching, sits at the front of the mind occasionally.  I think they would have done better directly addressing the question, not with an assault, but with a reason (eg. boss guy forbids it).

The thing which bothered me most, though, were the death scenes.  In original Tomb Raider Lara would fall into a pile of limbs, occasionally get shot (and there was that T-Rex), but the death was momentary and (perhaps thanks to poor graphics) not a big deal.  This Tomb Raider has lovingly detailed and painful looking death scenes, provided almost like a reward (Collect the Whole Set!).  See Lara impaled through the stomach!  The throat!  Watch the guy pull her head back and cut her throat!  See the lovingly detailed expression of horror on her face!

So, yeah, not a fan of the death scenes.

Overall, this is a slick, engrossing game.  But I prefer my Miss Croft without the whimpering.

11 July 2013

Pacific Rim (no spoilers)

Giant monster v Giant Robot.  Mecha have been a staple of anime for decades, but is not often seen in live-action - the monumental size of the giant robots definitely not being easy to pull off.  It occurs to me that most of the mecha anime I've watched - from Robotech to Evangelion - has taken a zero to hero approach.    Pacific Rim is more hero to zero to hero, and is less concerned with the monumentality of mecha (the way becoming a giant robot transforms pilots into something Other) than with a straightforward message of "working together".

Visually, I enjoyed the movie a lot.  The buildings and vehicles getting crushed all over the place felt very empty and there was little interest in this aspect of mecha (that the battle means the mecha will kill as many humans as the monsters), but it was definitely worth watching for the visuals alone. 

Logic and common sense (let alone science) are chucked out the door in favour of the visuals, though.  A lot of things seemed to happen purely because it would result in a pretty picture.  And the whole wall-related thing is just bizarre, though oddly reminiscent of a manga/anime which has become popular on my Tumblr feed lately - Attack on Titan - which has a few memorable characters (Mikasa Ackerman FTW - seriously, listen to this speech) and some particularly awesome combat visuals.

The "A plot" of Pacific Rim - that of a particular mecha pilot and his new partner and of their relationship with the guy in charge of the Jaegr program - is reasonable.  Not brilliant, or the kind of thing which would make me interested in rewatching, but entertaining enough.

The "B plot" - that of two rival scientists - is execrable.  It's played for comic relief and is Just.  So.  Bad.  The movie would have been much better if they'd just dropped this entire plotline and all of those characters.

As war stories go, this one was partially inclusive of women - there were a handful of women techs/soldiers/engineers and at least two pilots scattered among the huge numbers of men.  But we were twenty minutes into the movie before my first sighting of a female.

So, Pacific Rim.  What can I say?  Not as stupid as Prometheus.  Not nearly as enjoyable as Aliens.

Note: there were also two characters who were supposedly Australian.  My main reaction to them is "Amazing how many accents this pair have".

29 June 2013

1337 gaming : Long Live the Queen

So I was playing Remember Me.  The graphics are slick, the world (what you see of it) evocative, the gameplay a little similar to mid-period Tomb Raider, but with less puzzle and a great big rail to stop you from doing anything but the designated next step.  And I'd just beat the irritating robot boss after a dozen attempts when there it was:

DISC ERROR

3$!#!$!%%!!!!

I reloaded but, no save.  Me and Remember Me are on a break right now.  I'll probably get back to it eventually.

Now, Remember Me looks like this:


Well, for the brief period that you're not in a tunnel or the slums, anyway.  The view of the spray-painted on pants is pretty constant though.

Not in the mood for more shooting and jumping about, I resorted to Facebook games (because, Sulis knows, I wouldn't want to do something like work on my current novel while I had some quality procrastination time on my hands).  And somehow I ended up with this:

 
Long Live the Queen is apparently a "life simulation" game.  "Life simulation" in my case involving a great deal of dying.  You're Elodie, a fourteen year-old princess who, after the death of your mother, is frantically studying (apparently for the first time in her life) in order to successfully ascend to her country's throne on her fifteenth birthday.  Her Dad, the disturbingly young, "Dowager King", is quite happy to let her self-study and wander about alone, only calling on her occasionally to render judgment on various law-breakers.
 
I'm a bit of a softie, so my version of Elodie only occasionally ruthlessly executed people.
 
Long Live the Queen is HARD.  You have two classes each day to try and accrue queenly skills, and every so often something comes along and tries to kill you.  If you've foolishly neglected to gain enough skill in whatever would be a good ability for avoiding that particular form of peril, Elodie doesn't make it to her birthday.
 
The game actually reminds me a little of the original ZorkZork was a text-based adventure where you start standing next to a mailbox, and try to work your way through the world without being eaten by a Grue.  I never beat Zork.  It amazes me that anyone ever beat ZorkZork's level of trial-and-error death is in the stratosphere, and you must do everything absolutely correct in order, without a single step out of place, or you run out of turns.  I couldn't even beat Zork with a walkthrough (mainly because I ran out of patience).  LLtQ is a good deal more forgiving than Zork, and has an addictive quality which is entirely to blame for the zombie-like condition in which I turned up to work on Thursday.
 
Fortunately, I've beaten it now - and I tend not to be a replayer, but I do recommend it for someone tired of spray-painted pants and boss battles which involve lots of dodging and quick time events.  It even has a free trial for the curious.  And bonus incredibly pink magic girl graphics!
 
And, oh look, a whole string of links to other games.  Hmm...

15 June 2013

Interview & Giveaway at A Novel Idea

There's an interview with me (and a related ebook giveaway) up today at A Novel Idea.  Go check it out!

31 May 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 15 : Shades of Fantasy

Part 15 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Deborah J Ross' blog. This month we're discussing the whole range of fantasy - from grim, to gritty. ;)

29 May 2013

Jill Bond

Ever done the character creation process in a roleplaying game?  It usually involves a distribution of points, sometimes combined with dice rolls.  Quite a few of the systems will give you more points to spend on positive traits and skills if you 'buy' negative attributes.  You have enough points to buy "Driving" and "Swords", but if in addition you want to know a martial art, be a skilled shot, and have some very handy medical skills, you have to balance those skills with something negative.
 
World of Darkness, the vampire-focused RPG by White Wolf, gives you extra experience (levelling-up points) if you pick a flaw and then role play it well during game play.  You can see from this handy list, that some of these flaws are considerably sexier than others.  "Lost Love" will give you a very different roleplaying experience compared to "Coward".  In some systems you can purchase multiple flaws, potentially creating yourself a one-eyed, mute, addicted, halitosis-inflicted astronaut-ninja-brain surgeon.
 
Occasionally you'll encounter a game deliberately weighted toward "ridiculous hero", where flaws aren't required, and skills are free.  They tend to be fun, over the top but not quite serious games.  Every contrivance of plot will be thrown against these characters, but they will overcome because of sheer weight of skill overload.
 
Most stories attempt to balance their characters similarly, if not so crudely.  A main character with some strengths, and some weaknesses, who is 'rounded' by possessing some trait which keeps them from being overly perfect.  Anyone who has read widely in the young adult genre will be familiar with the purchase of "clumsy".
 
But occasionally you want a hero, someone almost over the top with their number of skills and their lack of flaws.  You want James Bond.  Or Batman.  Near-infallible, except for a slight tendency to disobey orders, or angst darkly about dead parents.  Their faults are cool faults, they play a long game, plan ahead, go through hell, and are proved right in the end, overcome ambushes, fight long and hard to win, adjust smoothly, and land with a double-pike twist and a cheer from the crowd.
 
Now.  How often have you read a review stating something in the order of: "I couldn't get into this story because the main character was too perfect"?  What percentage of the main characters were female?
 
It's not that we don't have a host of stories featuring Jill Bond, where the kitchen sink is thrown at her and she backflips and kicks it over the goal.  But Jill's existence seems to bother many readers.  Too often I've seen a story with a Jill Bond, who succeeds and succeeds, and plays that long game, plans ahead, wins at the end…and I'm told that she is the author's darling.  Irritating.  Unrealistic.
 
Isn't that the point?
 
There's a lot of fun to be had with those characters overloaded with all the positive traits, romping through their over-the-top stories.  James is fun.  Jill is fun.
 
Jill's name is not Mary Sue.  There is room for the Jill Bonds of the fictional world.  Let's celebrate them.

22 April 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 14 : The Difference Between Fantasy and Science Fiction

Part 14 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Valjeanne Jeffer's blog. This month we're talking about the difference between fantasy and science fiction.

15 April 2013

Bioshock: Infinite (no spoilers)

Bioshock was an amazingly atmospheric game, dark and claustrophobic and twisted and wonderful.  Combined with a strong storyline, and solid, inventive gameplay, it's no wonder it attracted a big fanbase.  I'd say Bioshock: Infinite surpasses the original in terms of atmosphere, has an equally compelling storyline, and I found I enjoyed the gameplay a little more (there was a lot of changing up of what you needed to do, and whizzing around on those skylines was a huge amount of fun).

On the negative side, this is most definitely a story on rails.  Once or twice you have an impression that you might be making significant choices, but this is a skyline with only one destination (and, sadly, one which I found a touch on the predictable side both concerning Elizabeth's nature, and Booker's future).  Still, the story, which revolves around a Pinkerton detective named Booker DeWitt sent to retrieve a powerful girl named Elizabeth is very engrossing.

The game world itself it uncomfortable to experience.  A glorious city in the sky - full of over-the-top patriotism, strict gender roles, racism, indoctrination and a leader who happily positions himself as god of his own realm.  Aspects of that worldbuilding, and the lack of choice in the storyline - particularly some of the people you end up fighting against and slaughtering - makes for some uncomfortable gameplay.  Bad enough to be killing off every policeperson in the repressive state, but there's also little choice in who else you end up killing (I say policeperson because, oddly, despite being a strongly patriarchal city, there were a lot of female soldiers).

Elizabeth is an interesting conundrum.  She's a young girl, full of book learning, who has been kept in a tower and subjected to cruel experiments.  The story is the classic "older cynical man 'shepherds' naive young woman to face tough realities and the question of whether she should kill".  When you first find her, the game goes out of its way to reassure you that you don't have to worry about Elizabeth during combat - "she can take care of herself".  By this, the game means she can hide behind the nearest solid object, make eeping noises, and occasionally toss you ammo or materialise items.  The only person she attempts to fight is Booker himself, and she's more than effective dealing with him on both occasions that she needs to.

Of course, this is a gameplay choice - making the player the active one - but I think I would have rated the game even higher if Elizabeth picked up a gun and shot things as well and we got to switch back and forth between playing Booker and playing Elizabeth.  I didn't think much of her shying away from killing while Booker slaughtered thousands while rescuing her. 

I preferred the original Bioshock's Little Sisters, who, while still being rescued (or not), gave the impression they would defend themselves against more than the player character.  Still, Bioshock: Infinite is several steps up from a game like Ico, where you literally had to lead the girl around by the hand, and she would curl up into a ball if you let her go.  (Ico is another beautifully atmospheric game with a strong story, but questionable girl action.)  B: I is well recommended, but also made me glad for games like Dragon Age, and doubly happy that the upcoming Torment game is going to let you play the main character as female.

13 April 2013

Managing the self-publisher's chip

When I'm asked about self-publishing vs trade publishing, I'll list strengths and weaknesses of both options, and strongly recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Business Rusch" series of blog posts.  Rusch is a hybrid author and has invaluable information on traps and issues which face both trade and self-published writers.  Even if you're intending to only follow a trade publishing path, reading Rusch (and her commenters) on issues with various contract clauses can potentially save you an infinite amount of grief.

But one thing Rusch doesn't cover in great detail is disdain.

Yes, attitudes towards self-publishing are changing, and self-publishers can put out books and try to gain an audience.  A tiny minority are stunningly successful (in the millions of dollars territory), a solid number are able to become full-time writers, and a far larger body hover around my level - enough that it's a viable second income, but not enough to give up the day job (rather like many trade published writers).  And there's plenty of people self-publishing who don't sell at all - either because they don't write very well, write in an extremely niche area, package their books poorly, or are just unlucky.  Self-publishing is no more a guaranteed path to success than that old saw: "If you write a good enough book, and keep submitting it, it will get published".

Even successful self-published books are often treated as "not good, just successful", and one thing most self-publishers have in common is the need to deal with scorn, hostility, derisive comments and - worst of all - complete indifference.

Many self-publishers have come from submitting their books to trade publishing and receiving either form rejections or frustrating "almosts".  Years of it.  Decades.  And going into self-publishing, they will face not only the apparently insurmountable task of interesting readers in their books, but also people who state "I don't read self-published books at all", or "I only read self-published books by trade published authors" and forums which (burned by a flood of over-the-top self-promotion) have strict "don't mention your books" rules.  And that's not even starting on the direct mocking.

Any person facing a long negative experience is likely to build up at least a small chip on their shoulder.  This past week demonstrated that even enormous success will not necessarily remove that chip.  Hugh Howey - one of the most successful self-publishers out there, with a major movie deal, a print-only book deal, and promotion which includes airport placement (ie. someone who is more successful than the vast majority of trade published writers) - posted a now-deleted blog entry entitled "The Bitch from Worldcon".

The blog post demonstrated two things: Howey has no comprehension of offensively gendered language, and Howey is carrying around an enormous 'self-publisher's chip'.  The story involves Howey playing incognito at a recent science fiction and fantasy convention, listening to a very rude person dismiss self-publishing, and gloating to himself (and later to his blog readers) over the secret knowledge of his own success, while indulging in a little power fantasy of, basically, rubbing his detractor's face in it.

Enormous success obviously hasn't made the resentment go away.  And the negativity toward self-publishing and self-publishers isn't going to go away either.  It's now just couched in terms which include "outliers" and "popular but bad" and "cult-like mentality" or "self-publishing is really really really hard and most of you will fail at it".  If you label yourself a self-publisher, the attitudes toward the group as a whole will shower down upon you, no matter your opinion of trade publishing, or the quality of your writing.

I'm not immune to self-publisher's chip.  It bugs me when people make statements about the quality of my books without having read them.  And I'm strongly aware of not being "part of the conversation" in the SFF world.  One of my clearest memories as a writer will always be the 2010 Aurealis Awards.  Sitting in a big auditorium full of people, watching my book's cover flash up on screen as a finalist for Best Fantasy Novel.  It was an amazing feeling.  And then I thought: "The only people in this entire room who have read that book are the judges."

Strategies for managing self-publisher's chip will vary from writer to writer, depending on the particular negativity being faced at the time.  I can only share the methods I use to keep that chip in check:

1. Focus on the good bits

I might not be a bestselling self-publisher, but in many ways I'm an incredibly fortunate one.  I've had some external validation thanks to those (highly discerning!) Aurealis judges, which in the worst moments I can point to and say: "See!  See!  Not rubbish!"

I have a small core of readers who have liked my work enough to consider themselves fans.  And they tell other people they should look at my books.  Or they just send me an email saying how much they liked them.  And that is an astonishingly wonderful thing.

I do read my negative reviews, but I save them up, get them over with like a dose of medicine, and move on.  Spending energy on negative reviews of your book is like stabbing yourself in the knee.

2. Care less about other people's decisions

Self-publishing is a wonderful option, but I don't evangelise it, and I accept that readers might use it as a criteria to winnow down the millions of books available to them.  Ultimately, it matters very little if a particular individual avoids self-publishing.

It's incredibly hard to do this when you're just starting out, and no-one is reading you.  It makes you feel like you'll never be read, that you're unfairly penalised, that it's all hopeless.  It will be even harder if your writing isn't quite there yet, and you've rushed to self-publishing perhaps before you're ready for a critical audience.  If nothing else, you can fall back on an "Hey, at least I have nice copies of my books on my bookshelf" attitude.

3. Don't try to be part of the conversation

This is probably the hardest one for me.  I like talking about SFF, and I'd certainly like to see my books considered part of the conversation in discussions of the genre, but one of the first lessons self-publishers learn is "don't talk about your own books outside your own blog".  I sometimes stray on this one - I'll see someone posting or tweeting: "I'm looking for SFF examples of X".  "There's hardly any SFF which does X, please someone give me examples!"  And eventually, against my better judgment, I'll be drawn in, and respond with two of three examples, including a book of my own which does precisely what the person is looking for.  And it seems like every time I do this, the person asking for examples will meticulously thank every single person for their suggestions - except for that pushy self-publisher, of course.

That's my chip in action.

4. Think long term

Self-publishing inverts the trade publishing model where pre-release buzz is built up, there's a mass burst of publicity on release, and the book has to sell sufficiently in its first year (or months) to keep the author's career alive.  If I judged my likely success on my first few months after release (where I sold only a handful of books), then I'd be an abject failure.  Except for the rare instant successes, self-publishers aren't really in a position to judge their careers for at least a couple of years.  And you never know if your next book might be your break out book, which in turn will juice your sluggishly selling backlist.

When I started I had an idea of a "five year plan". My first book went live in October 2010, so I won't really be able to judge how I'm going till October 2015, but the view from April 2013 is pretty good.

5. Next book?

Disinterest and occasional outbreaks of vitriol toward self-publishers are far easier for me to deal with than the immense negativity I suffered submitting books which never went anywhere, because it's balanced by lots of lovely positives.  And the biggest positive is the knowledge that there are readers out there waiting for my next book.

And so in conclusion I seem to be saying much the same as what most of the self-publishing advice posts say: The best thing to do is put your head down and write!

06 April 2013

It's got magic in it...the Clarke Awards and 'technical fantasy'

I usually don't have much to say about awards shortlists beyond: yep, that's a list of books this particular subset of readers thought were in some manner 'best'.  But reading this post by Tom Pollock did cause a few synapses to fire.  Pollock references Liz Williams' article regarding the reasons this year's Arthur C Clarke Award is an all-male shortlist, and highlights one paragraph in particular:
This leads us into the wider conversation as to why, despite having a significantly enlarged entry this year (a 36 per cent increase on the 60 books submitted in 2012) we received disproportionately fewer from women, of which many were technically fantasy.
Now the criteria for the Clarke Awards aren't the most detailed I've seen, and the relevant section reads:
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year
And Tom Pollock saliently points out: "so what if they’re fantasy, why should that stop them from being SF as well?"

It's no surprise that the Clarke Awards would lean toward this definition to mean "hard science fiction", or "focused on extrapolation of a scientific principle or concept", or at least "in the spirit of Arthur C Clarke" books, but where do we draw the line in fantasy elements?

One of Clarke's best-known novels is Childhood's End, where aliens which resemble bat-winged demons basically take over Earth and uplift humanity, then watch with interest as the new humans evolve into a telepathic hive-mind.  The story culminates with Earth dissolving into light.

Now, I call my Touchstone Trilogy "science fantasy", primarily because it features worldgates and "psychic space ninjas".  And it's full of my extrapolations of nanotech and a 'connected' society.  I think of And All the Stars as science fantasy too, though I don't think there are any more fantasy elements in it than in Childhood's End.  But I don't think it's focused enough on a scientific principle or concept, being more caught up in questions of friendship.

Champion of the Rose, however, is.

I've only seen one review which mentions that Champion of the Rose reads as science fiction.  I mean, it has tons of magic, and Actual Gods, and a possessive rose bush, but it's fundamentally a Genetic Manipulation Gone Horribly Wrong story.  The race called the Fair in Champ uses magic to create genetically modified plants and animals - alterations they term "beyond the blood".  It's strongly indicated that their race probably became "the Fair" by modifying themselves, and they now have extremely strong laws forbidding genetic modification of any of their people - and the plot is driven by what is suggested is a genetically modified member of the Fair.

It's in the worldbuilding that I do most of my extrapolation.  There's little world hunger, because the Fair chose to gift the other races with several useful crops that keep most kingdoms above subsistence level.  Food preservation is greatly enhanced by genetically modified cloves.  There's easily available birth control.  It's a book about how 'easy' genetic manipulation impacts on a pre-industrial world.

Now, I don't think I ever went far enough with my extrapolation to make Champ an award-worthy novel (and I seriously doubt I qualify for the Clarke Awards, though I've no idea how self-published books which are merely 'available' in Britain count in these matters, and it would be several years too late anyway).  But I'm a little saddened by the implication that many books among this year's possibilities (whether written by men or women) were automatically discounted by the judges as "technically fantasy".

How much magic does it take to stop something from being science fiction?