Thud, blunder, and the hammer of the gods

Sunday, December 21st, 2008 | Posted by Theo

I read with interest Bill Ward’s entry two weeks ago about Poul Anderson’s famous essay, On Thud and Blunder.  While I agree with Ward that fantasy has, in some respects, changed much for the better, in certain others it has markedly declined, and for reasons that Anderson specifically noted 30 years ago. In his essay, Anderson writes:

Sforza Hours“[T]he ever-changing interrelationships of kings, nobles, and Church form a major part of the medieval European tapestry….  The Church raises the subject of religion in general, which is little used in our field. Oh, yes, we may get a hero swearing by his particular gods and perhaps carrying through a small rite, equivalent to stroking a rabbit’s foot. We certainly got plenty of obscene ceremonies in honor of assorted toad-like beings. Both of these do have their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see an imaginary society which was pervaded by its faith, as many real ones have been.”

There is a fundamental dichotomy in fantasy literature today.  On the one hand, fantasy tends to be written by individuals who are much more likely to be irreligious than the statistical average would indicate.  On the other, fantasy is almost invariably set in an identifiably medieval setting that was historically permeated with religious faith.  This dichotomy is not necessarily a problem, as one no more need possess religious faith to write convincingly about religious characters than one has to hack off a few heads in order to write well about sword-wielding barbarians.  Frank Herbert was no Muslim, and yet his Dune is a science fiction masterpiece thanks in part to his exquisite use of rich Islamic themes and his multi-faceted characters, many of them devout.  But unfortunately, Herbert’s educated and perceptive approach is much more the exception than the rule.
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It’s Christmas time again…

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

Christmas was the most fun when I was a little kid, and when I had a little kid. Since neither applies these days, the lights don’t burn as brightly anymore. I’m not entirely a bah-humbugger, it’s just that, well, the magical feeling the holiday used to instill just isn’t there anymore. As a non-believer, the magic I’m referring to is rooted in that of the imagination of fairy tales and Old St. Nick, not the sacred version; although I recently attended a Messiah sing along and have been to the occasional Christmas service, I participate as an anthropological, not a religious, observer.

Now, maybe I’m just not paying attention, but I don’t seem to hear the outcry of putting “Christ” back into Christmas that was prevalent a few years ago. Possibly it has something to do with the economic crash that has lessened the crass commercialism the holiday is famous for (or, again, maybe I’m not paying much attention). In any event, I always thought the whole outrage about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” was silly, as the holiday’s origins arguably have less to do with the birth of Jesus than paganism and general debauchery. All of this is nicely summarized in A Narnia Christmas by Laura Miller, a staff writer at Salon, author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.
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Happy Birthday Michael Moorcock

Friday, December 19th, 2008 | Posted by Bill Ward

Michael Moorcock turned sixty-nine yesterday, and it’s hard to believe that this prolific, vocal, daring, and sometimes vociferous (see Wizardry & Wild Romance for an idea of what I’m talking about) Grand Master of SF is a senior citizen. Best known, of course, for the brooding albino prince Elric and his soul-hungry sword Stormbringer, Moorcock’s restless energy hasn’t confined itself to one hero, genre, or way of telling a story. So whether it’s the other aspects of the Eternal Champion such as Corum, Hawkmoon, or Von Bek adventuring through his shared worlds of the multiverse, his alternate histories like the Pyat Quartet and Nomad of the Time Streams, his experimental novels like Breakfast in the Ruins and Behold the Man, or a whole hosts of other complex and enduring novels such as Mother London and Gloriana, Moorcock has written something for everyone.

For his wide-ranging talent, refusal to play it safe with his writing, and enormous energy and imagination, Moorcock is truly one of the field’s most inspiring figures. Naturally, at Black Gate our focus is primarily on Sword & Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy, and in that field especially Moorcock stands as a giant — perhaps the last giant still among us — for his blend of old-school storytelling muscle, fertile mind, and New Wave edge. While the other aspects of the Eternal Champion may stand in the shadow of the forever-iconic Melnibonean, the entirity of Moorcock’s Sword and Sorcery oeuvre has to be seen as one of the field’s finest and most epic creations.

So happy birthday Michael Moorcock — and many happy returns!

BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.


Thursday, December 18th, 2008 | Posted by eeknight

“Take Courage– now there’s a sport / An invitation to a state of rigor mort.”

-sang Mordred in Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot.

The virtue of courage is the one commonality all the great heroes share. They persevere, even to a bad end, as Sam Gamgee said to Frodo as strength and hope flagged. Whether it’s Conan throwing himself into a ring of enemies, determined to break free or die:

With his back to the wall he faced the closing ring for a flashing instant, then leaped into the thick of them. He was no defensive fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the war to the enemy. Any other man would have already died there, and Conan himself did not hope to survive, but he did ferociously wish to inflict as much damage as he could before he fell. His barbaric soul was ablaze, and the chants of old heroes were singing in his ears. (Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932)

or Han Solo’s “Never tell me the odds” a hero’s first and foremost virtue, from the classics to the anti-heroes of today, is courage. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, as Tennyson put it in his tribute to Ulysses.

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In Defense of the Industry

Thursday, December 18th, 2008 | Posted by ScottOden

A common refrain about the publishing industry – heard clearest of all in those places where writers gather online – is that editors and agents are more interested in making a fast buck than in finding a solid author, that they’d rather have cookie-cutter fiction instead of something that breaks new ground, that they just don’t get it.  While I naturally cannot speak for every writer, my own experiences have led me to believe that the opposite is true.

To be sure, publishing changed when the conglomerates took over.  What was once a gentleman’s enterprise became instead a ruthless business, one replete with attorneys and accountants for whom books are merely a curiosity, a commodity.  There is an apocryphal tale from the late 80’s about a financial analyst who crunched the numbers and came to the conclusion that, since only a small fraction of books were destined for bestsellerdom, the editor-in-chief would do well to focus the company’s resources just on those few books.  Wearily, the editor explained that no one could predict which books might outperform the others until after they were released.  It’s frightening to think that the people who are ultimately in charge of our creative destines might not have the first clue what they’re doing.

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Read Planet: Kline’s The Swordsman of Mars

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

I read The Swordsman of Mars out of a sense of obligation, which is probably the worst way to read anything, and with the firm conviction that it would suck. That’s the word on the virtual street about Otis Adelbert Kline: he’s a poor man’s Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I was thinking: ERB, without that mellifluous prose style and brilliant plotting. Urk.

Well, I was completely wrong. I enjoyed the book enormously, but that’s not all. You can enjoy almost any piece of writing if you approach it with the lowest possible expectations (and, yes, I am thinking of Lin Carter‘s multifarious pastiches here). I came away from it with considerable respect for Otis Adelbert Kline as a writer of fantastic fiction. Read More »

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: WriteRoom

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

I was originally intending to write a post about my experience during this year’s National Novel Writing Month. But I have the tendency to over-write everything I do — my novel for NaNoWriMo included — and the essay has already gotten out-of-control and will require more than just hashing out the kinks late on Monday night while The Horror of Party Beach plays on the TV. The previous sentence is an example of over-writing.

So while I get that essay restrained and re-done, I instead offer the first installment in a multi-part series about the hi-tech lo-tech devices that have emerged to help writers make themselves more productive in a society that finds more and more gizmos to distract them when they should just be plunking down words onto a page. You writers all know of what I speak: how can you effectively turn out three thousand words of your new novel on a word processor that offers you twenty different awesome ways to format your footnotes? And which lets your web brower peak out around the sides, tempting you to check out the newest posting on The Onion? You might fix the window to block out all that, but wow, look at all the ways you can manipulate the screen!

Face it… writers will create distractions out of anything. So finding a way to get those pesky annoyances down to a minimum is worth checking out. (As long as it isn’t distracting you…)

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Adventure Fantasy in the Children’s Section

Monday, December 15th, 2008 | Posted by Judith Berman

My just-turned-nine-year-old son is a voracious reader, and in searching for books that would interest him I’ve become aware of the explosion of quality sf/f books written for the so-called middle reader and young adult audience. More or less at the time we started reading these books together, I also became bored and impatient with a lot of what passed for adult f and sf. As a consequence, over the past three or four years, a lot of what I’ve read recreationally has been fantasy that you will rarely if ever find in the regular genre sections of bookstores. A good deal of it, however, I’ve enjoyed very much, and the reasons are not arcane.

Successful fantasy for kids–meaning books my son loves, which includes but is not limited to books that sell a lot of copies–generally shares several characteristics. First and foremost, Things Happen. Middle reader/young adult fantasy is almost by definition adventure fantasy. Also, Things usually start Happening right away. Kids won’t read past the first page or two if they aren’t drawn into the story right off; this doesn’t necessarily mean that things blow up on page 1, but that the characters and their situation are immediately involving.

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Fantasy and the economy

Sunday, December 14th, 2008 | Posted by Theo

One of the more interesting aspects of the intriguing would-be science of socionomics is its concept of art and entertainment themes as an approximate measure of social mood.  This is a sophisticated variant of the well-known inverse relationship between skirt lengths and stock prices which postulates lighter themes being more popular in expansionary times and darker themes dominating during economic contractions.

As the news of massive frauds and corporate failures filled this week’s headlines, I found myself wondering if perhaps the socionomics concept can reasonably be applied to genres and sub-genres as well as themes.  There’s little doubt that the existence of Black Gate notwithstanding, the adventure fantasy has fallen upon relatively hard times; while many SF/F authors readily acknowledge their debt to Jules Verne, Robert E. Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, relatively few truly consider themselves to be writing in that tradition today.  Even the spiritually related Western genre of which Louis Lamour was once king sells but a small fraction of the numbers it used to command.

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The Reason for the Season…

Saturday, December 13th, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

The title of the Bruce Holland Rogers lead story in the latest Black Static of course makes you think it’s about Christmas. The “reason for the season” has become a rallying cry for those who want to emphasize the “Christ” part of the holiday (notwithstanding that the contemporary celebration has more to do with that literary fantasist Charles Dickens and his three ghosts, not to mention origins in German pagan worship rather than the birth of the historical Jesus, which scholarship tends to put at around April), and seeing how this issue shows up at this time of year, well, I was looking forward to some kind of horrific holiday story. Maybe a Wal-Mart employee getting crushed by holiday shoppers, or something. (Oh, sorry, real life got there first.)

It is a horrific holiday story, only it’s tangentially about Christmas. Actually, it’s about Halloween. Even more actually, it’s about real life. And real death. The beauty of the story is how it sets you up to expect certain things, beginning with the title, but leads you somewhere entirely different. And even more disturbing than initial expectations.
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