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?

05 April 2013

Hunting Released

I'll slowly add links as they become available, but Hunting is now officially released.  You can find it at:

Smashwords (special half-price coupon for my early-bird readers - HV62Z - valid till 12 April).

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Kobo

Apple (this link is to the Australia ibookstore, but you can change the country code in the link to your country)

Other retailers (takes between 3 days and 3 months, depending on the retailer - B&N is usually the slowest).

The TPB version takes between a day and three months to trickle out to retailers.  I'll add links as they become available.

CreateSpace

Amazon US

Yay!  Hope you like it!