SF/F Corruption: Part I

Thursday, December 27th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

the-quantum-roseWhy Amazon is Correct to Ban Author Reviews

There is word of a backlash against Amazon’s policy of preventing authors from reviewing certain books on its web site. The Telegraph reports: “Critics suggest this system is flawed because many authors are impartial and are experts on novels.” However, speaking as the first nationally syndicated game review columnist and a longtime professional reviewer for publications such as the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Chronicle Features, Computer Gaming World, and Electronic Entertainment, I can assure those who find this policy to be unjustified and unfair that it is absolutely and completely necessary due to the corruption, both professional and ideological, that is rife within the publishing industry in general and the SF/F industry in particular.

The problem isn’t merely one of authors sockpuppeting and heaping praise upon themselves under false identities. I am a member of the SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and I have had the dubious privilege of sitting upon three of its Nebula Award juries in the past. More importantly, I have had access to the SFWA Forum, and its updated list of Nebula Award nominations, for more than ten years. And one of the things that rapidly became obvious to anyone who attempted to participate honestly in the system between 2000 and 2010 was that the Nebula Award is, first and foremost, a means for various small groups of people to shamelessly and dishonestly promote the works of themselves and their friends.

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A Throne of Bones

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

the cover for the forthcoming novelExactly 499 days ago, I was discussing with a friend our mutual disappointment with George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. We waited for six years and that was our reward? “I swear, even I could do better,”(1) was said at one point in the conversation. “So, why don’t you?” came the response. The next day, I began writing the first words in what turned out to be the beginning of an epic fantasy series entitled ARTS OF DARK AND LIGHT, an 852-page book called A Throne of Bones. In it, I attempted to build upon the foundation of my past critiques of the modern fantasy epic, a number of which were first presented here at Black Gate. There are heroes and there are villains. Characters have a clear sense of morality and know when their acts violate their conscience. People possess religious faith, even when the religious institutions themselves are corrupted by the ambitious. The basic fantasy tropes are embraced and utilized; no wheels are pointlessly reinvented. Married men love their wives and have sex with them. Children love, respect, and in some cases, even listen to their parents. The plot is driven by the choices made by the characters rather than the other way around. There is no historical authenticity, but there is reasonable historical verisimilitude.

Throughout the writing process, I attempted to apply the lessons I’d learned from reading Tolkien, Erikson, Martin, Abercrombie, Bakker, Abraham, and others. Whether I have been successful or not in doing so is not for me to say. In some cases, I reacted; in others, I borrowed. In one case, I consciously and overtly stole. (In that case, I think the reader will agree that the theft was more than justified.) I mined Republican Roman history every bit as assiduously as George R.R. Martin plundered 15th century English history. At all points along the way, I tried to keep in mind the question that I originally asked in writing Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy: What would be the result of placing the most powerful and important medieval institution into a conventional quasi-medieval fantasy setting? It’s not at all necessary to read Summa Elvetica in order to read A Throne of Bones; the former is little more than an extended chapter in one prospective character’s life prior to the events of the latter and the same is true of A Magic Broken. However, those who have read Summa and grasped the significance of its structure will understand the intellectual and philosophical basis for A Throne of Bones.

For those who may be interested, here is an excerpt from an early review of the book:

A decade or so ago, I watched the Michael Chrichton movie Twister, and the early dialogue explained that the protagonist researchers had three complex and expensive measuring devices and their goal was to successfully place one in a tornado’s path during a superstorm. So, I said to myself, the movie’s plot will be them failing twice and then being triumphantly successful with the last machine, against all odds and competing against a more fully funded research team. And this is exactly what happened [Oh, I’m sorry, Spoiler Alert!]. So I (along with, I presume, most alert viewers) knew the basic structure of the entire plot, including the ending, before getting twenty minutes into the movie.

In extreme contrast to that experience is the reading of `A Throne Of Bones’ by Vox Day. On a micro and macro level, the reader is surprised (not to mention shocked and stunned), narrative directions are turned 180 degrees and assumptions are ripped away. I never knew where it was heading next. And here’s the good news: It’s a delightful experience.

When I reviewed `Summa Elvetica’, Vox Day’s last fiction book, I wrote, `My feeling here is that this book could be a “The Hobbit”-like prelude to a much more significant fictional writing.’ This, I’m pleased to say, is what the author has done.

A Throne of Bones is now available from Amazon for $4.99 in Kindle, from Barnes and Noble for $4.99 in Nook, or for $34.99 in hardcover from Marcher Lord Hinterlands.

(1) Just to be clear, this refers solely to A Dance with Dragons. Not A Game of Thrones. Or the second and third books in the series, for that matter. I may be arrogant. I’m not delusional.

Art and Argument in Arts of Dark and Light

Monday, October 15th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

A Magic BrokenToday I have the pleasure to announce the publication of a new novella as well as a forthcoming first foray into epic fantasy.

As most Black Gate readers know, I haven’t been hesitant to share my opinion about modern fantasy, particularly modern epic fantasy, but it is easy to criticize. It’s rather less easy to figure out how to materially apply that criticism.  One rapidly finds oneself rethinking things when attempting to improve upon that which has been criticized, and after spending the last year writing an 800-page first volume in a new fantasy series, I find myself increasingly sympathetic towards some of those I’ve criticized in the past, Steven Erikson in particular.

I rather liked his grim Malazan Books of the Fallen, but always considered them to be something of a chaotic mess. Now that I’m wrapping up a novel that is rather longer than Gardens of the Moon, I find myself hoping that it will turn out as orderly as Erikson’s work.

However, it’s less my purpose to discuss A Magic Broken, the novella that serves as an appetizer to my forthcoming novel, A Throne of Bones, than to give Black Gate‘s readers a chance to see a side of the cover art process that is seldom made public. It was an occasionally contentious process that wasn’t easy on anyone’s ego, but it was one that I think you will agree turned out surprisingly well in the end.

So, without further ado, I will step aside and turn over the metaphorical microphone to my favorite cover artist, Kirk DouPounce, whose work can be seen at DogEared Design.

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50 Shades of Paedo?

Sunday, August 19th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

fifty-shades-of-greyThere is fantasy and then there is fantasy that goes too far. While all of us would draw the line of what is acceptable fantasy and what is not in distinctly different places, I think most fans of the SF/F genre would agree that pedophile fantasies definitely cross that line. I’d also throw in elderly vampires that spend their days in high school and sparkle in the sun myself, but clearly millions of readers disagree.

So does 50 Shades of Grey go too far? Not on the surface, as according to its description it is little more than John Norman’s Gor brought back to Earth, minus the sword battles and the awesome tarn birds. And it’s not a question I can legitimately even try to answer, since I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, nor do I have any intention of doing so.

And while I am vaguely reminded of both the absurd Dungeons & Dragons and Harry Potter scares of the past, neither of which resulted in the impressionable youth of America disappearing in sewers or devoting their lives to the practice of black magick, this particular charge strikes me as rather more plausible because it relies upon such a very simple writer’s trick. To summarize, the idea is that while the protagonist of the 50 Shades books is nominally 21, the stated age is a deception because the character is actually much younger based upon how she is written throughout the books. In other words, the books don’t tell the story of an erotic seduction of an adult woman, to which few could reasonably object, but rather a child molester grooming a young victim. This is a little troubling, when one considers that the titles in the 50 Shades trilogy are presently the best-selling books in America.

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Eternal Warriors 1, 2, and 3 in ebook

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

The War in HeavenIt was challenging to come up with a way to distribute two pretty Rowena covers and two generic Pocket covers across three books, but with a little artistic inspiration from some of my friends and readers, we managed to come up with a consistent look and release The War in Heaven, The World in Shadow, and The Wrath of Angels in ebook format.  Few in the SF/F community will be familiar with them, since despite the religious roots of the genre and the religious aspects of many of its greatest classics, most editors and reviewers openly disdain anything that stinks of a non-secular perspective.  That’s merely an observation, most certainly not a complaint, as all three books sold out their print runs, three in the case of The War in Heaven.

In fact, the one thing I learned from the experience was that the style of a book’s cover is much more important than reviews from the SF/F media.  I mean, we all know it’s important for a cover to stand out and be attractive, but what I didn’t realize was how the look of the cover tended to dictate how it would be stocked in the bookstores and perceived by the potential readers.  Whereas the first edition cover, which was an original painting by Rowena that she and I designed together, was an overtly fantastic image – the ebook’s cover to the left uses the painting with a different layout and typography – the second edition was an insipid attempt to imitate the striking black style of the Left Behind series.  (Needless to say, this was done over my protests).  It was also reclassified as “Speculative Fiction” rather than “Fantasy.” Not only did this result in the second edition being placed in the religious fiction section instead of the fantasy and science fiction section where it thematically and stylistically belonged, but it was outsold by the previous edition by a five-to-one margin. So much for the benefit of professional marketing by a big New York publishing house.

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Historical Authenticity or Historical Verisimilitude?

Sunday, May 13th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

the-chronicles-of-narniaAfter reading through the various responses to my post two weeks ago, some of which were insightful and intelligent, others perhaps a little less so, I found myself concluding that I had probably gone a little too far in the process of defending historical authenticity against Daniel Abraham’s charge that it is not an effective defense against charges of insufficient strong women, excessive white people, or a surfeit of sexual violence.

Upon further reflection, I don’t think it is correct to conclude that a work of fantasy will necessarily be improved by additional historical authenticity. Would The Chronicles of Narnia be improved by religious schism or removing the historically ludicrous notion of four siblings ruling simultaneously? No, I can’t honestly say it would. Would Abraham’s own The Long Price Quartet be improved by making the imperial Asian culture utilize a historically authentic kanji/hànzì system of writing that would likely be all but unintelligible to the various warlike Caucasian societies surrounding it? No, I don’t think so.

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The Primacy of History

Sunday, April 29th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

the-kings-bloodDaniel Abraham attacks the idea of historical authenticity in fantasy:

The idea that the race, gender, or sexual roles of a given work of secondary world, quasi-medieval fantasy were dictated by history doesn’t work on any level. First, history has an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from. Second, there are a wide variety of secondary world faux-medieval fantasies that don’t reach for historical accuracy and which would be served poorly by the attempt. And third, even in the works where the standard is applied, it’s only applied to specific, cherry-picked facets of the fantasy culture and the real world.

This is a fascinating assertion. We need less authenticity in fantasy? Let’s begin by looking at Abraham’s three initial assertions. First, history does not have “an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from”. In fact, those of us who study history either professionally or on an armchair basis tend to be impressed by the way in which the historical patterns tend to repeat themselves. For example, the economic notions of the Mongol ruler Gaikhatu Khan, whose issuance of paper currency in 1294 promised reduced poverty, lower prices, and income equality, eerily prefigured both the General Theory of John Maynard Keynes as well as most of the Federal Reserve statements since 2008. Granted, neither Bernanke nor Geithner met with the unfortunate fate of the Khan’s chief financial officer, but as they say, history rhymes rather than repeats.

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The Return of the Epic

Thursday, January 19th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

way-of-kingsAfter reading some of my past posts related to the degraded state of epic fantasy, it is a pleasure to be able to say that there are still writers who harbor sufficient regard for the genre to write it more or less straight rather than attempting to subvert it in some tediously predictable manner.

While there is always a place in any genre for an interesting subversion – and few have ever done it better than Tanith Lee’s supremely dark take on various classic children’s tales – once the subversion becomes the norm, the novelty aspect is gone and the new sub-genre must stand or fall on its own merits rather than upon the borrowed merits of the genre it is subverting.

And at this point, the antihero in epic fantasy, or to put it more accurately, the villainous protagonist, is about as novel and intrinsically interesting as the creaking Hollywood chestnut featuring the grand climactic mano-a-mano confrontation between the hero and antagonist in which the hero is all but vanquished when a last taunt enrages him and inspires him to battle back to ultimate victory. Yee-hee-hee-awwwwwn.

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Amorality is Not a Moral Position

Monday, January 9th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

irondragonsdaughterOn the one hand, I’m pleased that people outside the coterie of Black Gate writers are interested in the question of morality and the new nihilism within the SF/F genre. On the other, I’m a little disturbed by the way in which so many people with opinions on the subject appear to have an amount of trouble grasping some of the most basic issues involved. While we can certainly agree to disagree when our opinions on the subject happen to diverge, we can’t even manage to do that when there are fundamental misunderstandings concerning the subjects being discussed. To explain what I mean by this, it is first necessary to quote the German writer Cora Buhlert’s recent post entitled Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition.

And even the defenders of morally sound fantasy have often no qualms with a piece of morally questionable fantasy, as long as they enjoy it. Remember Theo, who was involved in last year’s nihilism in epic fantasy debate and felt that morally ambiguous epic fantasy was not just fiction that was not to his taste, but apparently heralded the decline of the western world itself? Turns out he’s still blogging at Black Gate on occasion. What is more, he takes Mur Lafferty to task for not wanting to read supposed genre classics, because the racism and misogyny and the prevalence of violence against women puts her off. So Theo ranting against Joe Abercrombie and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a sign of his moral superiority, while Mur Lafferty ranting against The Stars My Destination and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a sign of her lack of education and moral flatness? Sorry, but this doesn’t work. If Theo enjoys Thomas Covenant, more power to him. But that doesn’t change the fact that Thomas Covenant is a rapist and no more moral than the protagonists of the Joe Abercrombie novels he singled out for destroying western civilization. But since Thomas Covenant is really sorry for what he did, spends much of the series wallowing in self-pity and finally apparently redeems himself, at least in the eyes of Theo (I can’t say if it would work for me, since I never got that far), that apparently makes The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant okay. Though I guess what really makes Thomas Covenant okay for Theo but not Joe Abercrombie is that he enjoyed Thomas Covenant but didn’t enjoy Joe Abercrombie. Which is a perfectly acceptable aesthetic judgement, but does not automatically make one book morally superior to the other.

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Reading List 2011

Sunday, January 1st, 2012 | Posted by Theo

reamdeSince my readers often expressed an interest in what I’ve been reading myself, two years ago I started keeping track of books that I had read and finished. Nothing complicated or anything, I just record the name of the book and the author once I finish reading it. Then, at the end of the year, I divide the entire list into five categories which are solely based on how well worth reading I found the book. This isn’t a statement about the quality of the book or the writing, just whether I happened to enjoy it or found it to be either useful or thought-provoking. Since a lot of the books that I finish reading are SF/F – I also do an amount of research in books concerning economics and history without reading them cover to cover, and therefore don’t include them here – I thought I might as well post the list here on Black Gate as well. Please note that an amount of re-reading takes place from time to time, so don’t conclude that their inclusion here means that 2011 was the first time I read the earlier books in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The most interesting book I read this year was Victor Hugo’s The History of a Crime, which concerns Napoleon III’s successful political coup, with Neal Stephenson’s Reamde a close second. (His Anathem is more ambitious and in some ways even more interesting, but falls apart towards the end and prevents me from giving it primacy of position.) The worst thing I read this year was without question Plato and the Spell of the State, a convoluted quasi-academic paper by Patrick Tinsley, who could probably be committed for life on the sole basis of the evidence of that paper. I was tempted to give it five stars because it is so insane that it is almost worth reading for its sheer lunacy.

The Republic, Cicero
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
Married Man Sex Life Primer, Athol Kay
Anathem, Neal Stephenson
Reamde, Neal Stephenson
The History of a Crime, Victor Hugo
Embassytown, China Mieville
On Literature, Umberto Eco

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