An alternative medium

Sunday, January 11th, 2009 | Posted by Theo

If you play fantasy games and read fantasy fiction, you are probably aware that the quality of the writing in the latter tends to significantly exceed that of the former.  Now, I’d long assumed that the problem of bad scripts in games was the result of poor decision-making by the responsible producers.  This was probably the result of the time I was asked about my interest in writing the Starcraft novels.  And I was very interested, right up to the moment when the Blizzard guy waxed exceedingly lyrical about how astonishingly cool it would be to build towards a climax where the Queen of Blades exited the scene with a cruel and evil chortle.  I nodded, smiled, and told my publisher that he’d have to find someone else to write the books for them.

I’m no literary giant, but I’d at least like to know that any monstrous cliches surfacing in my work are unwitting ones.  And life is too precious to spend months wading through the muck of someone else’s rotten chestnuts.

However, it turns out that the pedestrian tastes of executive producers probably aren’t the main problem.  The truth, I have come to understand over time, that most game industry people assume that writers are significantly more expensive than they are.  Even at excellent development studios with first-rate designers, artists, and audio guys, responsibility for the scripts and dialogue are likely to be handed over to a wannabe writer who has never published in his life… and sometimes just to anyone who happens to be free for the afternoon.

There are a variety of different paths into the game industry, probably more than there are ways of breaking into print.  So, if you’re creative and happen to harbor literary ambitions, it might be worthwhile to consider putting together a portfolio that shows off your talents and submitting it to game developers in addition to sending off submissions to the usual publishing houses, literary agents, and magazines.  The medium may be different, but the need for original, high-caliber fantasy writing is arguably greater, the ghastly Vampire Humper craze infesting fantasy literature today notwithstanding.

Beowulf-The Mother of All Fantasies

Saturday, January 10th, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

I was reminded of the Angeline Joline as sexy monster, 3D retelling of Beowulf, which actually was not as bad as it could have been, when I chanced upon this January 3rd interview with English professor Kenneth Tiller (there’s a download link in the right hand corner that gets you to the MP3 of the program); it’s always nice to hear an academic who sounds like a “real guy.” Of note is that his career choice in medievalist studies was an adolescent fascination with Dungeons and Dragons.

Though not strictly about fantasy, also check out the companion interview with poet David Wojahn, who reads one of his poems based on hearing a Johnny Cash/Joe Strummer duet on a cassette tape, what he called listening to two dead guys on a dead medium.

Short Fiction Review: Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders

Friday, January 9th, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

Fast Forward 2 cover“So just what is science fiction?” asks editor Lou Anders in the preamble to his second and latest volume of Fast Forward, an annual collection of original genre stories (you can find my review of the first edition here). Theodore Sturgeon, whose definition Anders includes in the epigraph, used to seem to say it best: “…a story about human beings with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.” Maybe back when Sturgeon was writing, that covered all the bases. What, then, would you call this anthology’s “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctrow, in which nary a human can be discerned in a computer generated simulacrum? And while Paul McCauley’s “Adventure” does take place off-world, this would be an example of where you could take the science out of it and still have a story in which the protagonist attempts to confront his illusions, with disappointing results.

Another reason for continually posing the question is to distinguish science fiction even while mainstream literature adopts conventions of the genre that dare not be named by publicists and marketing programs. Another, related, part of the challenge is that we live in science fictional times. Used to be, a character accessing a globally connected computer network to get directions to the nearest sushi bar could only be taken seriously in the funny pages of Dick Tracy wrist communicators. These days, it’s merely another mundane background detail.

Anders’s definition has multiple aspects, but the one notable criterion is that, “To my mind, science fiction is first and foremost entertainment and must be entertainment if it is to function effectively…” (15). While he goes on to say that it should be more than just entertainment, I think the reason most people start reading science fiction in the first place is that it is great fun, something that frequently gets overlooked in the sometimes ponderous discussions about what is, or is not, science fictional. If Fast Forward 2 has an overriding theme, it is that the fourteen stories here are highly entertaining (though, as it happens, the stories I found the most intriguing were actually the least purely escapist).
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Shagrat the Barbarian?

Friday, January 9th, 2009 | Posted by ScottOden

When Tolkien created the Orcs, he unleashed upon the world a blighted race that embodied the worst aspects of ourselves; a race whose name became synonymous with cruelty and hate, with savage violence and genocidal fury.  Slaves, they were.  Foul servants of fallen gods and dark lords and wizards who had strayed from the light.  But, an odd thing occurred: Orcs evolved beyond the scope of their creator.  They grew and multiplied.  Their origins and aspects changed; they infested dungeons beyond number, became the military backbone of ambitious princelings and sorcerers-who-would-be-kings, and even found their way into the Chaos-wracked depths of space.  But always they remained lackeys.  Single-minded minions.  Sword-fodder beneath our contempt.  And yet . . .

And yet, not long ago Wizards of the Coast sparked a furor when they announced that half-orcs would no longer be a core character race in the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  Fans wanted them to stay; some even declared that no game could bear the D&D banner and not have half-orcs.  Indeed, the past few years have seen a sort of Orcish renaissance burst upon the fiction scene: a US omnibus edition of Stan Nicholls’ Orcs, Morgan Howell’s Queen of the Orcs trilogy, RA Salvatore’s The Orc King.  But, rather than the villainous beasts typified by Tolkien, these modern Orcs have been engineered into perfect exemplars of the Noble Savage. Read More »

An Ode to Episodes, or: Can Fix-Ups Be Fixed?

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

Astounding December 1939 Discord in Scarlet-tinyEpisodic novels (or fix ups) have a bad reputation these days, and I don’t think that’s entirely undeserved. For instance, I find the individual “weapon shop” stories of A.E. Van Vogt sort of intriguing, the way Van Vogt can be intriguing before he lets you know what he’s really driving at (usually something like Tyrants Are Nice People, Really). But The Weapon Shops of Isher, based on the same stories, is a chunk of dreck by comparison, and its sequel is even worse.

Van Vogt was always mutilating his best short stories by trying to make them part of something bigger: consider the sad fate of “Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet”, welded into the bulk of an ungainly construction dubbed The Voyage of the Space Beagle. (Although that’s an awesomely tone-deaf title. One envisions an indefinite series of sequels: Bride of the Space Beagle, Son of the Space Beagle, Revenge of the Space Beagle, etc., all featuring the further adventures of the star-spanning canine suggested by the original title.)

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Clint the Barbarian Slays Bus with Bare Hands

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Gauntlet PosterClint Eastwood never starred in or directed a sword-and-sorcery or heroic fantasy movie, and since he’s declared his retirement from acting with 2008’s Gran Torino, chances are he never will. That’s too bad, since the leathery, iconic actor might have made a nice fit into certain dark fantasy worlds. Michael Moorcock thought he would have made an excellent Eric John Stark; I agree. But Eastwood as a performer and director was more interested the realistic American landscape, and he never got near the world of the overtly fantastic.

Except once. On a poster. A really damn awesome poster. From one of the legendary fantasy artists. And therein lies an interesting little tale of marketing and artwork.

In 1977, Eastwood had just come off two large financial successes: The Enforcer, the third Dirty Harry film, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Western that he also directed. Although both films pulled in big box-office receipts, neither got the critical establishment excited. The Enforcer was reamed—hard (“Maggoty with non–ideas,” sniped The New York Times). The Outlaw Josey Wales fared slightly better, but most reviewers dismissed it. Rex Reed remarked that it “seems to last two days. Never before has so much time been devoted to such trivia.” I have never taken Reed seriously as a critic because of this review. On the other hand, Time magazine listed it as one of 1976’s Top Ten films. Eastwood has often said that The Outlaw Josey Wales is the film of which he is most proud, and today critics and fans fawn over the movie as the masterpiece that it is. (I don’t care much for The Enforcer myself—it’s the least entertaining of the Dirty Harry movies—but The Outlaw Josey Wales sits at the top of my short list of favorite films.)

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Adventure Fantasy in the Children’s Section: Garth Nix

Monday, January 5th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

Recently, on a writer listserv I’m on, discussion veered to how to turn kids in general, but boys in particular, into avid readers. The general consensus from the parents on the list was: limit screen time, whether TV, games, videos; find books they are interested in; and read to them every day. On the topic of how to find books, one father of two boys in particular recommended the authors Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, and Garth Nix, saying that he hadn’t considered the gender of the authors or the main characters, he just knew his kids would love their books, and they had. I would certainly second his recommendation. There is plenty for adults to enjoy, too.

Garth Nix, who is this year’s Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention, is my 9-year-old son’s favorite author, and the one who easily topped his “what books would you want with you on a desert isle” list. (Here in Dubai, we are on a desert peninsula, not isle, but given how expensive books are, the feeling is sometimes the same.) Having been given a size and weight limit by his parents, he filled it mostly with Nix’s Seventh Tower and Keys to the Kingdom series.

The former consists of six slim volumes that would add up to a decent-sized tome in the adult section. It’s set on a pair of worlds, one, Aenir, the source of magic and spirits, the other, where humans live, in perpetual darkness except for the magical Sunstones that come from Aenir. Residents of the seven-towered Castle on the human world must each acquire and enslave a spiritshadow (exchanging it for their own natural one) via a quest to Aenir in order to achieve any status. The story begins when one of the main characters, Tal, has to steal a Sunstone from the top of one of the towers in order to heal his sick mother. He falls off the tower, out of the Castle, and into the wider world where his people are considered evil sorcerers…. It’s fast-paced, very readable, with humor, plot complications, and interesting characters and world-building, if (to an adult) a rather familiar overall plot trajectory.

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The return of the king

Sunday, January 4th, 2009 | Posted by Theo

Ever since the inception of Dungeons & Dragons, games have played a role, so to speak, in introducing non-readers to the concept of fantasy worlds. Fantasy games are hardly new; one of the first computer games I ever played was Akalabeth, the precursor to the Ultima series, on the Apple II. But what has changed is that games, and specifically massive multiplayer online games, have perhaps become the most important medium for the genre, surpassing not only movies, but the very literature that spawned the concept. You know we have entered into strange new territory when one can’t turn on the television without seeing the Wrath of the Lich King ad featuring Ozzy Osborne and when one sees a pair of pretty Italian models casually stroll into a game store of the sort that have been shadowy temples of high geekdom for decades, sit down at a pair of machines, and fire up their Blood Elves.

However, fantasy gaming does not yet boast the collection of masters of the genre of the sort we have long enjoyed reading in fantasy literature. Most of the worlds created are mere technological translations and the few genuinely original creations tend to be distinctly mediocre.  The World of Warcraft is great gaming fun and an incredible achievement, but originality is not among its many virtues.  Indeed, its huge success is in part dependent upon Blizzard’s commitment to the precise opposite. Lord BritishThat’s why I was delighted earlier this week to see the news that Richard Garriott, Lord British his own royal self, has apparently had enough of space for the time being and is contemplating a return to the world of medieval fantasy gaming, if not necessarily Britannia itself. While the failure of Tabula Rasa may cause some gamers to wrongly conclude that Lord British is finally past it, this would be a mistake. That failure is little more meaningful than if a great author happened to have a team of midlist ghost writers throw together a meandering and soulless book called Working Title published under his name. Anyone who has spoken with Garriott about the state of electronic gaming in the last year or two will know that he’s as keenly perceptive a game designer as ever, and the fact that he has pointedly identified artificial intelligence rather than graphics, IP licenses or social networking as being the most important area of game development over the next decade is a good sign that his next death will take place in a fantasy world as groundbreaking and eminently enjoyable as the previous ones.

Fantasy games have a long, long way to go before they can reasonably compare with the immersive and otherworldly quality of the best fantasy novels. But if there’s a designer who can do it, it is the one who has shown the rest of us the way so many times before.

Weird, New and otherwise

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

I’ve just started the Jeff and Ann VanderMeer edited The New Weird, a kind of anthropological excavation of a genre movement earlier in the decade that many of its adherents started to disavow once they got labelled with it (bad enough to be in the sf/fantasy ghetto and then get relegated to an even more narrowed niche), about which I hope to have more to say in this space at some later time. For now, though, here’s what China Miéville said about this when I interviewed him at the height of all the debate about what constitutes “New Weird.” And, as long as I’m touting my own miniscule involvement in the discussion, here’s something else I had to say about the supposed follow-up to New Weird — The New Wave Fabulists.

For some more contemporary comment, here’s the ever-hip Paul De Filippo on the latest nominations to the sub-genre.

Excuse the short post, but I think I’ve got some reading to do…

Making a List, Checking it Twice

Friday, January 2nd, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

Naughty or nice? Well, the holidays being my favorite excuse to procrastinate, I’ll have to reluctantly admit to ‘naughty.’ Being naughty, I’ve left my blog entry to the last minute. I’ve had a few New Yearsie ideas I thought I might advance, the kinds of things having to do with resolutions — mostly of the writing variety. But writing has been well enough covered at Black Gate of late and, while I know we have a lot of writers in our audience, I can’t help but think the thing that really pulls us all together, and sets us apart from, well, from a great many people who would never pick up a work of fiction let alone investigate the website of a fantasy magazine, is that we are all readers. First and foremost, that defines us.

But I’ll leave the meditation on what it is to be a reader, and how it changes the way we relate to the world, for another time — or perhaps I’ll just leave it for James Enge as he has been on a philosophical roll lately. Thinking about reading, and my relationship to (or obsession with) books, and thinking about the New Year and the sort of goals and promises we make for ourselves, got me thinking about my reading list.

Maybe you have one, too? Well, if you don’t, now would be the time of year to start. My own list is very simple, a small notebook in which I make note of the title and author(s) of every book I read, as I finish them. I have some rules governing what goes in — for example magazines don’t — and a few other simple notations that let me know if it is a book I am rereading, or a graphic novel, etc. I started keeping it when I turned twenty-one — nine years later I started a second notebook that shows every sign of running out of pages before I’m forty.

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