A Modest Proposal to Improve the Hugos

Thursday, May 28th, 2015 | Posted by Rich Horton

The Hugo AwardIn thinking about the recent unpleasantness (regarding the Hugo ballot, I mean), it occurred to me that one source of the issues with the Hugos right now has nothing much to do with slates or bloc voting or Sad Puppies or Social Justice Warriors or even taste (that much). It is simply this: there are a lot more SF stories published now than there were in the past. That makes it really hard for any reader to even come close to reading them all – something that was quite possible, I am told, back in the 1960s. I can testify: I used to try very hard to read every SF story that came my way, and there were years I read over 2000 stories. And every year I missed hundreds, at least, and some of those very good.

In a way this is one function of ballots and shortlists (and, indeed, recommendation lists): to try to condense the mass of stories published each year to a manageable set of the “the best.” My Best of the Year anthology every year serves that function (secondarily – the main function is to give readers a great book to read). So does, for instance, the Locus Recommended Reading list. But even there, note that our lists are by no means inclusive. Indeed, I signal that (as do other Best of the Year editors like Gardner Dozois and Ellen Datlow) by including a long list or recommended stories in addition to those in my book. And the Locus list is painstakingly cut from a much longer list of recommendations by all the contributors – a list that highlights the problem I cite, as all of us realize that our fellow recommenders have seen outstanding stories we have missed.

Though, I ask myself, why do I use the word “problem?” Surely it is a feature, not a bug, that there are so many stories published each year that are worthy of our attention? Indeed it is, but a result of that, I feel, is that if we want the Hugos to represent the very best stories of the year, we are failing, in the sense that it’s easier than before for a great story to slip under the radar.

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Adventures in RPGs: Long Arc or Short Arc?

Monday, May 11th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Scan 11AD&D carried me from middle school right through college, and about seventy-five percent of the time, I wound up as the referee. The core group with whom I played continued right on getting together for another fifteen years or so after graduation, engaging in annual reunions all over the country.

And I kept right on refereeing. After all, I had unfinished stories to “tell.” These story arcs played out over weeks, months, semesters, and then years. Many remain unfinished to this day. In the main, the rest of the group enjoyed my epic, often convoluted approach. For better or for worse, we weren’t much for hack-and-slash, in-and-out heroism.

Or were we? I’ll never forget Eric S. musing, as one reunion year wound down, that it sure would be nice if for once we could storm the castle, rescue the maiden, and be done.

His wistful comment stemmed in part from my having that very year posed a variant on that longed-for maiden-in-the-tower paternalistic standby: Orcus hired the party to rescue a damsel in distress, but this particular blushing violet turned out to be a truly enormous, deformed frog that had to be kissed in order to… well. Let’s just say there aren’t enough kisses in creation to make the wife of Orcus any more desirable.

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Adventures In Near-Future Sci-Fi: Black Mirror

Monday, April 27th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Black Mirror White BearI don’t watch television. Or not, let’s say, broadcast television. Since the first X-Files video tape showed up, I have, instead, binge-watched episodic TV in irregular, spasmodic doses via VHS, DVD, and Netflix. I watch with my wife, and we’re not (to the shows) faithful: if a particular series bores us, we move on. Even Breaking Bad, after three seasons, felt like a joke gone on too long.

But Black Mirror. Holy cats!

It’s the best sci-fi you’ve never heard of.

A British show made for Channel Four, Black Mirror is the brainchild of one Charlie Brooker — whom you haven’t heard of, either. The series aired in the UK from 2011 through 2013. Based on that time span, you’d think it was a fabulous success spanning dozens of episodes. Only half true. Black Mirror consists of six shows total (plus a 2014 “Christmas Special,” which I have yet to see), and each is self-contained, a hermetic “What If?” often compared to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. The reference is not especially apt, but like Velcro and old chewing gum, it’s a label that seems to have stuck.

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Why I Was So, So Wrong about the Standard Fantasy Setting

Saturday, April 11th, 2015 | Posted by Connor Gormley

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate-smallSo I wrote a stonking great think piece thing about the Standard Fantasy Setting a while back and a lot of people read it. Some of those people liked it and some of those people didn’t; that’s fine, it’s got to the point where I only cry for fifteen minutes when someone criticizes me now.

The problem is, though, the more I think about it, the more I think about the points I made, the more I find myself in the latter camp, the more I catch myself bad-mouthing me behind my back and trying to suffocate me in my sleep. That’s a very bad thing when you’re a bona-fide messiah, chosen by the gods to lead the masses to enlightenment.

So yeah, I thought I’d write this follow-up post, explaining what was wrong with the article and to set the record straight. It’s more for me than anyone else… mostly because, goddammit, no one criticizes Connor Gormley better than Connor Gormley does.

I had good intentions at the start, yeah. It was going to be a much more balanced look at the standard fantasy setting, its pros and cons and a pretty mild critique; and you can still see elements of that initial idea kicking around in there, in what I actually said about the setting. The fact that it lets authors focus on narrative pacing, on character development, or outright, balls-to-the-mothertrucking walls action if they want, without having to worry about world building or introducing entirely new creations because most readers already know the characteristics of Elves, Dwarves and Orcs and what not, or at least the nature of a medieval-ish society. Michael Moorcock might be able to meet the compromise, yeah, but Michael Moorcock is essentially Jesus, so I don’t think it’s fair to count him (which, renders half of the article moot, anyway).

Where the problems arose was when I started spouting out things like “A genre that, by its very nature, should have no restrictions, that should be free of limitations and impossible to define has become one of the most rigid and easily distinguishable genres in our modern spectrum.”

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A Detailed Explanation

Saturday, April 4th, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Hugo Award Black GateThis is going to come out at some point, so I might as well say it here and now: I declined a Hugo nomination for this year’s Best Fan Writer award. I think it’s only fair to the people who voted for me to say why. Be warned, this is going to take a while. (And long-time readers of mine around these parts know that coming from me, that really means something.)

Firstly, given the nature of this post and the scrutiny that surrounds a major award, I should probably introduce myself. Hi. I’m Matthew David Surridge, a Montreal-area writer. I had a couple of longish short stories published a few years ago, one in the paper version of Black Gate and one at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’ve been fighting some minor but debilitating illnesses for a while which have kept me from writing fiction, but luckily reading and thinking about books is still within my power, and so I’ve been blogging here at Blackgate.com since 2010.

I mostly write about books I’ve recently enjoyed. In 2014, that included posts about surrealist Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, Elizabeth Hand’s Bride of Frankenstein tie-in novel Pandora’s Bride, a collection of short stories by Violet Paget AKA Vernon Lee, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the medieval tales in the Gesta Romanorum, Mary Gentle’s The Black Opera, Stella Gemmell’s The City, V.E. Schwab’s Vicious, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Jan Morris’ wonderful Hav, Phyllis Ann Karr’s Wildraith’s Last Battle, Steven Bauer’s Satyrday, the Harlan Ellison–edited shared-world anthology Medea, Pat Murphy’s three ‘Max Merriwell’ novels (There And Back Again, Wild Angel, and Adventures in Time and Space With Max Merriwell), Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel Lolly Willowes, E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros and Zimiamvia trilogy, and Patricia A. McKillip’s The Changeling Sea. I also often write about comics, and last year I discussed the Steve Ditko/Wally Wood/Paul Levitz run of Stalker from the 1970s; the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Hugo-winning Saga; Alan Moore, Antony Johnston, and Facundo Percio’s Fashion Beast; and Sage Stossel’s Starling.

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Adventures In Italy: Calvino’s Italian Folktales

Monday, March 30th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Blue FolktalesI grew up on Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, and the myriad anthologies of Andrew Lang: The Blue Book Of Fairy Tales, The Brown Book Of Fairy Tales, The Red Book Of Fairy Tales, etc. Most of these were read aloud by my father, so I received them as part of humanity’s long oral tradition, a fact for which I am now very grateful. Aesop, too, arrived in my life as something overheard rather than read.

All of the above work shared a common heritage. In fact, prior to high school at least, they led me to believe that fairy tales were specific to Europe, something vaguely Nordic, and familiar to the degree that the characters within the stories were uniformly white and spoke English. Who knows when it finally occurred to me that these stories were translated, and that many had international sources that transcended culture, race, and geography.

By 1980, when Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales finally arrived in an English-language edition (translated by George Martin), I was moving into different myths: Tolkien, certainly, but also the grittier, street-savvy story-telling of S.E. Hinton, Robert Cormier, and early Bruce Springsteen. The publication of Italian Folktales made not a ripple in my life. Indeed, I eventually read several other Calvino classics (If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler…, The Baron In the Trees, and The Non-Existent Knight) before realizing his omnibus folktales even existed.

It took me another ten years to order a copy and crack the covers, and ten more still to really delve into this enormous, 760 page trade paperback (Harcourt). What finally tipped me over the edge was the need for a new book to read to my adventure-obsessed youngest son.

At the outset, I admit to being worried that Calvino might not be a hit.

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Representations of the Amazon in Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet and in DC’s Wonder Woman

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Legolas_portrait_-_EmpireMagBut first, I’d like to ask readers a very important question:

Do Tolkien’s Elves have pointy ears?

This came up after my last post, in which I wondered why Anderson and Tolkien (and many other fantasy writers) agree that elves are tall and have pointy ears. After reading this, Frederic S. Durbin contacted me to say,

Does Tolkien ever say that the elves have pointed ears? To my knowledge, he never does. Please correct me if I’m wrong! This is a bone I had to pick a few years back, when some writer somewhere described hobbits as having “hairy toes and pointed ears.” I think this misconception about Tolkien’s elves and hobbits has come from artwork. Artists need to have a way of making magical races look different from humans, so they go for the ears. We need Spock to look different from humans in a cheap and easily-reproducible way from day to day in the studio, so we give him pointed ears. People have been seeing illustrations of pointy-eared elves and hobbits for so long that they’ve begun to believe Tolkien described them that way. I don’t think it’s true. (Again, I’m willing to stand corrected if someone shows me a passage!)

So there you have it, folks! Please help! Is there a passage anywhere in Tolkien’s writings that suggest that Elves (or even Hobbits) have pointy ears?

And now let’s turn our attention to Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet.

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Adventures In History: George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman

Monday, March 9th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

First FlashmanA few months back, I was (ever so gently) castigated for not giving proper credit to the screenwriter of the Michael York / Oliver Reed rendition of The Three Musketeers. That man was George MacDonald Fraser, he who wrote the Flashman books, a series into which I had never delved.

That has now been corrected, and just in time, too: no lesser a light than Ridley Scott (Alien; Blade Runner) is developing a reboot of Flashman with 20th Century Fox. As the fool on the hill once opined, everything old is new.

So let’s set aside fantasy for just a moment and allow for historical action-adventure as a sideline of the vast cultural behemoth that is now Black Gate. Swords, after all, form a big part of heroic fantasy, and in Flashman (first published in 1969, never out of print), swords of many types are on display and put to use. Lances, too. Plus primitive rifles, dueling pistols, and cannons.

The only thing missing? The heroism of our anti-hero, Harry Paget Flashman. He’s a survivor, and an accurate judge of other people’s character and abilities, but beyond that, he’s the very definition of reprehensible. He’s a cad, a coward, and an unrepentant racist; he’s treacherous, larcenous, and vindictive besides. Let’s leave off his appalling treatment of women, at least for now, and accept him for what he’s best at: looking sharp in military regalia. Ah, if only looks could kill…

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Northern Matter in Poul Anderson’s “Middle Ages” of The Broken Sword and in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

1971 cover art by Boris Vallejo

1971 cover art by Boris Vallejo

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword originally was published in a different form in 1954, which is why I’m discussing it at this time and not later. It is important to note that in Anderson’s introduction to the 1971 edition, he refers to his earlier self, the writer of the 1954 version, as if that person were not himself but in fact a different writer with the very same name. Anderson’s 1971 introduction also specifically takes into account J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. Anderson asserts that, like Tolkien, he has mined the rich veins of the Northern fantasy tradition, but he claims that, unlike Tolkien, he has found riches of a slightly different hue, perhaps gems with deeper or gloomier lusters. He writes:

In our day J.R.R. Tolkien has restored the elves to something of what they formerly were, in his enchanting Ring cycle. However, he chose to make them not just beautiful and learned; they are wise, grave, honorable, kindly, embodiments of good will toward all things alive. In short, his elves belong more to the country of Gloriana than to that house in heathen Gotaland. Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it was necessary to Professor Tolkien’s purpose.

I was at first horribly confused by this reference to Gloriana, able to uncover at first only a post-dated work by Michael Moorcock of that title. Until I realized that Moorcock’s novel borrows from the very thing that must be Anderson’s reference – Gloriana, or the Queen of Faerie in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (a work of whose ending I have not yet got to) who is herself an allegory of Queen Elizabeth.

What a very puzzling suggestion. Of course we know, from Tolkien’s own introduction to The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien detests allegory, so this certainly isn’t the point of comparison that Anderson finds. So it must be Gloriana’s character, and in Spenser’s medieval reconstructionist tradition Gloriana must of necessity stand as the ideal form of every human virtue. But does this truly characterize Tolkien’s Elves? One may even become incensed when Anderson appears to make a slightly disingenuous comparison by claiming that he harks “further back” than Tolkien, to medieval Europe in which “cruelty, rapacity, and licentiousness ran free.” Um. Tolkien’s Elves lived in a vanished Earth Age, not in Spenser’s proto-Romanticist reimagined “Arthurian” England. If we’re talking in terms of scope, Tolkien’s setting might have more to do with Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age than even Anderson’s Middle Ages.

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Chaotic and Lawful Alignments in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

ThreeHeartsI’m willing to bet that Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions published in 1953 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and Anderson’s close friend and frequent collaborator Gordon R. Dickson’s St. Dragon and the George, published likewise in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at about the same time – later republished as The Dragon and the George) owes quite a bit to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And Anderson doesn’t disguise this, for he at least once overtly references Twain’s historical romance when he has his protagonist, Holger Carlsen (a “Carl” again!), unconvincingly scare away a band of barbarians by using his tobacco pipe to blow smoke out of his mouth. The work further encourages comparisons to Twain’s book through Holger’s use of other “Enlightenment” tricks in a secondary world, and Anderson uses bookends reminiscent of Twain’s. Anderson’s bookends here are worth a closer look.

Holger Carlsen’s history, as relayed by an unspecified narrator, funhouse-mirrors Anderson’s personal history. In a book profiling Supernatural Fiction Writers, Ronald Tweet reports that Anderson was born to Danish parents and lived in Denmark for a while previous to WWII. Holger of Three Hearts and Three Lions is a Dane who, after wandering Europe, starts attending an Eastern university in the U.S. When WWII breaks out, he goes back to Denmark, where, through fairly compressed and elliptical telling, the narrator says that Holger eventually ends up in a pistol fight with Germans. At this point, “all his world [blows] up in flame and darkness.” And Holger finds himself in a fantasy world.

In light of Anderson’s own biographical information, one is tempted to believe that much of this work is the result of a highly personal fantasy, a kind of daydream out of which many fantasies certainly must arise. I’m sure that most of us have fantasized about being an important person in an important place – If only we could get there, somehow!

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