Son of Rambow

Saturday, November 29th, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

I recently rented Son of Rambow, a coming of age tale in which two British schoolboy outcasts — one, Lee Carter, a bully and troublemaker, the other, Will, a shy kid raised by his widowed mother who belongs to a strict religious fundamentalist sect — develop a common ground on which to become friends. Lee’s one interest, besides causing mayhem, is filmmaking, particularly action movies such as Rambo. Will has a highly developed imagination and has secretly written a fantastical book in which the hero rescues his father from the forces of evil (and you can figure out where that idea comes from even without ever having read Freud). The two partner to realize Will’s fantasy as a movie to be submitted to a young filmmakers contest. Complications ensue when Will casts a visiting French exchange student, who everyone in school worships as the ultimate in coolness, in a lead role; the move results in Will gaining in popularity himself while Lee becomes marginalized. Meanwhile, the religious sect is beginning to suspect that Will is violating its precepts and Will has to be more inventive in accounting for his whereabouts when he sneaks off for filming.

The English film had a limited release in the U.S. and is perhaps under the radar for the average Netflixer. It is of note to BlackGaters not only because of the fantastical theme of the boys’ movie, as well as the archtypical nerdish attraction to find comfort in fantasy escapism, but because the director is Garth Jennings, who previously directed the celluloid version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I haven’t seen, though I’ve heard fans are less than enamored of). Based in part upon his own childhood experiences, the movie is all the more remarkable because with one exception (Jules Sitruk who plays the French student), all of the child actors were neophytes (one of the minor characters is played by the grandson of Stanley Kubrick), though you’d never know it. If you’ve had your fill of the trite and true variations of this theme that are always playing at your local megaplex, check this one out. It restores your faith in the idea of film as a thoughtful medium, as opposed to the usual appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Late to the Party, as Always

Friday, November 28th, 2008 | Posted by Bill Ward

Gathered as we are around the virtual fireplace this week on the Black Gate site, with each of us blogger-types introducing ourselves and sharing some of our insights or opinions or our unique perspective based on how far along we are with our own writing projects, or what sort of specialist knowledge we can impart on the Black Gate community, I am confronted again with a problem I’ve had to deal with on my own blog. Namely, trying to appear interesting.

Being a writer of fiction, I could of course just lie and tell you about my experiences as a test pilot, or the time I spent as a plumber in Ulan Bator. But that, as the man said, is practically dishonest. So I tried to think instead about the sorts of things I’d be blogging about here, and what kind of qualifications I might have that meant that what I had to say was worth the time you’ll take to read it. It was then that I hit upon an interesting bit of self-knowledge, namely, that I came rather late to the kind of fiction you’ll see us talking most about on the site, the sort that appears most often in Black Gate.

So, my bona fides in this area show me to be a bit of a johnny-come-lately. I did scarf down The Hobbit in elementary school, it being the first book I remember buying with my own money, but I never got around to finishing The Lord of the Rings until I was nineteen. And, while Dungeons & Dragons and the Dragonlance books acquainted me with every fantasy trope from elvish tree-hugging to mace-swinging holy men, I doubt if I could have told you what a Sidhe was, or how the clerical prohibition against edged weapons actually had historical antecedents. Apart from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I wasn’t versed in any epic fantasy, for all my heroes dwelled in the world of science fiction.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 27th, 2008 | Posted by ScottOden

As my inaugural post here at Black Gate falls upon a holiday, I asked Howard Andrew Jones what sort of topic might be appropriate.  Perhaps a survey of the role of birds in fantasy, or the importance of radical Puritanism in the work of Robert E. Howard, or the secret predatory nature of the common turkey . . . friends, have you ever seen a raised eyebrow sent via email?  “Maybe if you just introduce yourself,” he said.  A wise man, that Howard. 

My name is Scott Oden, and I – like those who have blogged before me – am a writer; my genres of choice are historical fiction set in Antiquity and historical fantasy.  I maintain a personal blog and a website.  And I will tell you this upfront: I have a serious thing for Orcs . . . Tolkien, non-Tolkien, Greenskins, and even those ridiculous porcine brutes from D&D.  One of my hobbies is tracing their evolution through modern media (“research for a book,” I tell myself, in hopes of lending an air of respectability to what amounts to a peculiar obsession). 

As far as influences go, I owe a great debt to Robert E. Howard.  His grim and vibrant adventures have colored my own work since the day I first put pen to paper; indeed, it’s likely I would never have decided to try my hand a writing if I had not come across Conan of Cimmeria in my older brother’s library.  Tolkien, too, ranks high on my list, alongside Harold Lamb.  The latter’s Alexander of Macedon, which I read as part of a school project in the 5th grade, directly inspired my second novel, Memnon. 

When not writing or reading, I can usually be found gaming – both old school dice-and-paper role-playing games and console video games.  I’m sure, as we go forward, little bits of all the things that hold my interest will make their way into my posts, and perhaps even what little wisdom I can muster on the business of writing novels. 

So, that’s it from me for now.  I wish everyone much happiness and contentment on this Thanksgiving Day!

R.I.P.: Enge, Unicorns, etc.

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

You know that guy, Austin Tappan Wright, who spent his entire life writing a massive utopian novel Islandia, a fantastic work in every sense, which only saw print after his death?

I hate that guy.

Not because there was anything wrong with him, a fine person by all accounts, or his masterpiece, a cleanly written and intensely imagined fantasy. No, it’s just that one tends to hate what one fears and for a long time I feared a minor-league version of his fate. I often envisioned someone, after my death, clearing away my papers (or data clouds, or whatever we’ll be using for documents in the distant, I say distant, future) and finding references to someone named Morlock. “Did Enge write fiction?” they’d say in my recurring nightmare. “I thought he just killed undergraduates with humiliating questions about gerunds and Zeus’ sex life.”

Now, anyway, that won’t happen, thanks largely to the two people editing Black Gate. John O’Neill bought a few Morlock stories from me back in 2004/2005, and Howard Jones took a couple more when he was editing the e-zine Flashing Swords in its first and greatest iteration, and on the strength of the Morlock series I eventually got an agent and this summer signed a two-book deal with Pyr Books. The first book, Blood of Ambrose, is due out in April 2009. I don’t say success is imminent, certainly not with the financial crisis casting a shadow over publishing along with every other field of endeavor in the US, but my obituary will probably have occasion to mention my fiction when it appears in the county newspaper (or neural nanotransmitters, or whatever we’ll be using for news-media in the distant, I say distant, future). So: thanks, John and Howard. I owe you.

It’s not to repay the debt, which can’t be repaid, that I accepted their invitation to group-blog here. It’s that, when given a chance, I’m constitutionally unable to refrain from running my mouth about stuff on my mind, whether I know anything about it or not, and fortunately this is one of the three great purposes of the internet (along with pron and lolcatz).

The thing on my mind at the moment is unicorns. It started with the announcement of the upcoming anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns (edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier), which struck me as a brilliant idea. (I had half a thought or so about it which I blogged here.)

Then last night, as synchronicity would have it, I read a W.B. Yeats play about players and pretenders, “The Player Queen”, in which unicorns loom large, although they never actually appear. Rumors of unicorns tag the local ruler as a witch; one second-hand report even has the unicorn and the reclusive queen doing the nasty. A drunken poet named Septimus defends the unicorn from any charge of impurity, but as the play goes on (and he sobers up?) he starts railing against the “violent virginal creature”:

If we cannot fill him with desire he will deserve death. Even unicorns can be killed. What they dread most in the world is a blow from a knife that has been dipped in the blood of a serpent that died gazing upon an emerald.

I’m not sure what half the stuff about unicorns in the play means, but it’s clearly a powerful symbol of otherness and hope. Since then unicorns have been used and imagined and reimagined so much that their emotional halo has been mylittleponied into blunt four-color rainbows. They’re overfamiliar. “They had their day but now they’re passé.” “That old preacher character don’t make me laugh anymore.”

In a way, this is inevitable. Any symbol, if it penetrates deeply into a culture, attracts parody and appropriation–it’s one way you can start to actually see the thing again, as opposed to scanning past it and saying, “Yeah, I know what that is.” Consider the million-and-one parodies of the Mona Lisa. They don’t diminish the original.

But it seems as if the poppification of the unicorn has gone beyond this, banalizing the image so that it is almost impossible to use it in a semi-serious context, even in fantasy where, one would think, an occasional unicorn might find an unspoiled field to roam in.

Can the unicorn be saved? Or is the image just used up and does it need to lie fallow for a century or two before it’s usable again?

I don’t know, but it’s a more important question than it might seem at first. The unicorn is just one instance of a larger trend where the tropes of fantasy have become so familiar they are almost toxic. Naturally the genre needs to go on finding new tropes (and it seems to me to be having a little trouble with that), but it would also be good if we could somehow detoxify the old ones, remake them, reforge those broken blades. If so, maybe even the sickly unicorn can take new life.

And if not–what were those ingredients again? An emerald, a snake, a knife…

Short Fiction Reviews #12

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 | Posted by David Munger

The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Tall Tales on the Iron Horse
Reviewed by David Soyka

Well, here we are again with another short fiction collection with a dumb and unoriginal title –
The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy
is the latest entrant in a long line of insipidly titled collections that have contributed their small part towards the ghettoization of the genre.  Presumably this is not editor Ellen Datlow’s fault, but rather that of some marketing department genius. You might think that a publishing house with a pedigree like Del Rey Books could actually use some imagination when titling works of the imagination.

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Pastiches ‘R’ Us: Conan the Raider

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Conan the Raider

By Leonard Carpenter (Tor, 1986)

So here I am on the Black Gate blog, your “Tuesdays with Ryan.” I’m already a blog addict, and I’ve run my own extensive blog for two years (after two years of running a sloppy, more personal-blathering journal at a dreadful blog service). I write science-fiction and fantasy, mostly aimed at teenagers (I am an adamant supporter of YA genre literature, and for various reasons I may talk about in another entry, it is the genre niche where I feel the most at home), but I’m also an extensive nonfiction author fascinated with the history of speculative fiction and the stranger corners of it that don’t often come to light. And, in case anyone cares, I am a damned good lindy hoppin’ swing dancer with a love of period clothing.

Now, how to begin blogging at Black Gate? The answer arrived easily. I’ve chosen to return to my “origins” as an online reviewer, and review a Conan pastiche novel. Ambition!

I have a long association with the “Conan pastiche,” here defined as any story about the legendary sword-and-sorcery hero coming from a writer other than Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard. When I first started reading Howard’s Conan stories in the early ‘90s, the only place I could easily locate them was in the paperback series that mixed pastiche stories among Howard’s originals. I was therefore “trained” to accept the pastiches as having as much validity as Conan stories as Howard’s originals, an attitude I now completely reject. But I was young and eager for more of this sword-and-sorcery goodness, so when I finished off the Howard canon, I decided to peek into the other novels from Ballantine and Tor. Most Howard fans would never touch them, but Conan novels were, at the time, one of the few places to buy genuine sword-and-sorcery at a standard chain bookstore.

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Hello World

Monday, November 24th, 2008 | Posted by eeknight

John O’Neill and Howard Jones did me the honor of asking me to participate in this group blog, so I’m here to introduce myself.

My name is E.E. Knight and I’m a writer of fantasy, sf, and horror — in other words, the genre section that’s usually to be found in bookstores by the romances and mysteries.  Of course I have a website and a blog of my own.  You may have already seen me here with my “Knight at the Movies” shorts.

I fell into the Black Gate orbit by corresponding with John some years back when I was unpublished and struggling to change that (he rejected a story but gave me some good commentary) and entered Howard’s social circle when we discovered we shared so many of the same interests, like gaming, movies, pulp literature, and blood sacrifice to the Prince of Serpents while our captive women are whipped to dance faster, faster, FASTER!  Black Gate was publishing the sort of new short fiction I liked to read: well paced, a strong storyline, some interesting characters, and plenty of action.  This isn’t to say the other mags are churing out crap, far from it, I just enjoy the style and variety that John chooses to feature.

Also, the magazine respects gaming.

Seemed like they had an interesting vision for this group blog.  While there’s plenty of brainpower lined up, I doubt it’ll turn into an online Algonquin Roundtable of Postmodern Literary Theory. I rather think we can hope for an Iroquois Confederacy of Heroic Fiction, though.  Look for a few flung tomahawks.

They generously gave me a blank check to write about whatever I like, whenever.  Don’t worry, I won’t be rating early sixties centerfolds here (that’s what the blog is for!).  What I will be doing is talking about adventure fiction, hopefully that of others but if I get really desperate I’ll discuss my own work.

So thanks for the invite, Howard, and the set-up, David, and the vision, John.  I might make you my regular Saturday Night Thing.

Apprehend a little calorie is secured

Monday, November 24th, 2008 | Posted by Judith Berman

When Howard first asked me–among several other Black Gate writers–if I would like to blog regularly for the web site, my first concern was about internet access. This was back in July, and I was soon to head off-grid for a yearly visit with my family in British Columbia, and after that to Dubai, where my spouse had taken a job, and where the government grants internet service only to those with residency visas, which he did not have yet. We didn’t get connected until the beginning of November. Fortunately, the web site wasn’t ready for us until the last few days! Now my concern, as a s..l..o..w writer, is generating content on a weekly basis…

At the start of a blogging endeavor it seems appropriate to introduce myself. I’m a writer of sf and fantasy whose academic background is in anthropology, oral literature, ethnolinguistics, and ethnohistory, and my geographic area of specialization is the indigenous north Pacific coast of North America. I post periodically about Dubai in my personal blog, and my website has a list of my fiction publications. Within the larger sf/f genre, I write all over the map, and at conventions I find myself on panels on shamanism and myth as often as those on the economics of space travel.

At such occasions and elsewhere I have witnessed much sub-genre bashing on all sides. I have also, when talking with people outside the genre, encountered more than my share of dismissive opinionating on the topic of sf and f in general (no doubt an experience shared by many readers of Black Gate) and, from within the genre, corresponding dismissiveness towards so-called mainstream fiction.

With regard to fantasy–the topic here–much of the bashing seems to come down to the view that the sub-genre is pathologically nostalgic, that it consists of little more than the endless recycling of the same tired cliches, and that writing fantasy is “easy,” in part because of its cliche-ridden nature and in part because in fantasy worlds, writers “can just make everything up.” There is, absolutely, too much fantasy that fits this stereotype. The topic of conventionalization in fantasy, however, is a much broader one that goes to the heart of how I think about genre, literature, and storytelling of all kinds, and I’d like to say just a few things about it in this first post.

One aspect of living in Dubai that I have not written about at my LiveJournal is the nature of communication here. Eighty percent or more of Dubai residents are expatriates from all over the world. English is the common language, but it is the first language of very few. Many people appear at first contact to speak English, but turn out only to be able to say or respond to a limited number of stock phrases, and much of the time will not tell you when they don’t understand you. Any transaction that deviates from the scripts they have memorized soon degenerates into chaos. I only wish I could provide a transcript of a call we made to Ikea Customer Service querying whether we had purchased the right kind of furniture treatment for our new put-it-together-yourself table. (I eventually realized that the transaction must have foundered over the term “unfinished furniture.”)

Having come up as a scholar through the study of unwritten languages and folk literature, I have a great respect for convention. All language, for example, depends upon shared conventions that govern how we parcel sounds and strings of sounds into meaningful categories. These rules do not determine what we say, but are rather the necessary tools for saying it.

Successful storytelling similarly depends upon many kinds of conventions, and from a folklorist’s perspective, all stories are examples of one genre or another. What distinguishes any given genre is its particular constellation of stock elements along with its rules for combining them. Moreover (I would add), every genre has its own bell curve of conventionalization, from the completely cliched and predictable to stories that are barely comprehensible within the genre’s framework.

Communications consisting purely of stock elements–between store clerk and customer, between writer and reader–can work, but only if the subject matter and the needs of the participants never vary. Outside of this very narrow frame, however, attempts at communication are at constant risk of disintegrating into meaninglessness.

Customer: Do we have the right finish?
Ikea Customer Service: You need to finish your furnitures, sir?

At the other end of the bell curve are communications that where the use of the relevant conventions is radically insufficient. These also can quickly descend into chaos. Take, for example, this sign (from Korea rather than Dubai) posted recently at that wonderful archive of under-conventionalized language,

Conventions, in other words, are not in and of themselves the enemy of literary value (howsoever that may be assigned) any more than the rules of English syntax and semantics are the enemy of comprehensible speech. Conventions are what make it possible for a writer to arouse the reader’s interest and to satisfy the reader’s expectations–to create meaning. As a reader, the most satisfying stories for me are often those that manage to find a middle ground and place conventions at the service of the unexpected. As a writer, my own creative process is often a dialectic between the raw power of convention to shape a story on the one hand, and my reaction to those conventions on the other, which often means wanting to tear them apart and reassemble them. A broad topic, as I said, and one I hope to come back to.

Who reads these things?

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

Well, resistance is futile.  I had little interest in being absorbed by the Blogging Borg (I mean, really, if everybody including your grandmother is doing this, how hip can it really be?) and had so far successfully remained contentedly absent from the blogoshphere.  (Well, not entirely, I do post playlists I do for a radio show on WTJU 91.1 FM in Charlottesville, VA called Vagabond Shoes, but I don’t really count that as blogging.)  But when the good folks here asked if I’d be a weekly contributor to the BlackGate blog, I figured, well, what the hell, I’d join the multitudes.  

Which brings me to a recent essay by Joe Queenan at the NY Times in which he argues a fawning book review is as bad as a poor review. Which, in turn, reminded that a little while back there was some discussion in the genre blogosphere about the lousy quality of on-line reviewing, with some attempt to correct it that proved largely unsuccessful. Now, I’ve got a regular short fiction review gig here, and I’ve been reviewing books (on-line and in print) for quite awhile. And I have to say it’s easier to write a review about how bad a book is than how good it is. If anything, I think sometimes people who specialize in panning what they’ve read have an agenda in advertising their own good taste. Not that I’ve ever not written a negative review, but for the most part I tend to review what I’m interested in, and even when it falls short of the mark in my opinion, I always wonder if the fault is my lack of understanding rather than the author’s art (which is not going to happen if you pick up your average Tolkien rip-off and go for the easy targets).  Actually, I think I’m less interested in writing a positive or negative review than to convey a sense of what I think the author is getting at, and how successful it has been, at least to me.  


Now, who really cares what I think one way or another is a whole other issue.


Black Gate is on Twitter

Thursday, November 20th, 2008 | Posted by David Munger

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