Why The Words?

I’m bad at updating this blog, for any number of reasons.  I don’t always like to talk about myself, I’m terrible at self-promoting, etc…

Lately, with the atrocities committed by the government in this country that I’m supposed to hold dear, I’ve been noisy on social media.  I feel like any long form commentary will devolve into angry ramblings at this point, lacking anything productive that other people haven’t said already.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about the authors I love, those whose words inspire me.  One of my current favorites, both for his fiction and opinions, would be Chuck Wendig.  Follow him on Twitter.  Read his blog, especially this piece here.  He speaks volumes.

The authors we grow up reading are the ones that influence us, whether we are cognizant of it at the time.  Our list of favorite books may grow over time, but the memories of the past linger.  One of my all-time favorite authors, Steven Brust, wrote a thing for Tor.com about another one of my all-time favorite authors, Roger Zelazny.  His thoughts about the quality of the writing and how inspiring it was, well, it inspired me to write about it.  Coincidentally, Brust and I share an opinion on Zelazny’s writing.  It’s complex layers, even when the story didn’t work fully.  The depth, the juxtaposition.  The ability to speak to a reader.  Brust’s work, inspired in part by Zelazny, has had a similar effect on me.

The list of authors whose back catalogue I seek out, who’s bibliography always has a place on my shelf, is not a long one.  They are more often than not fantasy writers, but ones that have attained a mythological aspect of their own.  They are writing fantastical stories, in our world or in another, that are most decidedly human.

Neil Gaiman

A household name for the nerd set, needing no introduction from myself.  His work with the Sandman series was not only the first comic book that bound my brain, but the first time I read something that fit into a spiritual mindset I had started to form.  My first encounter with the concept of consensual reality, that is, the idea that if enough people believe in it, it exists.

Roger Zelazny

I was introduced to Zelazny almost concurrently by my father and stepfather, in the form of The Chronicles of Amber.  A sweeping epic of philosophy, many worlds and the godlike beings from Amber that could walk between them.  There were politics, feuds, epic battles, fights against demons and otherworldly beings.  There was philosophy and poetry, and they were laden with intense layers that I wouldn’t even begin to comprehend until much later.  They showed me the importance of authorial voice, how well one could use an unreliable narrator and how to take a flawed protagonist to a deeper level.  Lord of LightJack of Shadows, and Damnation Alley are just a few others that hold root in my mind.

Charles De Lint

De Lint, both a prolific author and a very talented musician, was the first urban fantasy writer I discovered, or rather, was introduced to.  He wrote stories of myths, faerie tales and more, brought into our modern world.  The fictional city of Newford was vibrant and alive, with characters that formed a central core.  And yet, all of the short stories (of which there are a plethora) and the novels stood on their own.  There were familiar faces, that grew and evolved if you read them in the order they were written, but rarely were they the sole protagonists.  Someplace To Be Flying is still my go-to read when I need something comforting and familiar, and the book still reveals new details each time.  The body of work that Charles De Lint wrought serves as a constant reminder of the importance of Mystery and Grace in our world.

Steven Brust

My stepdad introduced me to Steven Brust’s Jhereg some time after I’d devoured the Amber series.  As a teenager, I was enamored of this sarcastic, witty assassin and his wisecracking familiar.  A crime story in a fantasy world unlike anything I’d seen before.  Each novel just the right pace.  The books did not come out in chronological order, but in a fashion that made sense to Vlad as he narrated.  Or to Steven as he wrote it.  Every time a new iteration in the series comes out, I reread them all.  I am never disappointed, even by a few of the weird ones in the middle.  Having read them chronologically, I find that I prefer the order they were published in.  With the newest one, Vallista, coming out shortly, I feel the series reread approaching.

And I love his other work, like The Gypsy (cowritten with Megan Lindholm), but then he had to go blow it all out of the water.  He wrote The Incrementalists with Skylar White, and it is a book that I am still processing, especially in light of current events.  The sequel, The Skill Of Our Hands, was just released and is proving as elegant and thought-provoking as one would expect.

The Others

The list of authors that I love is a long one, and most things I read impact the way I view stories, for good or for ill.  Sometimes I read something that leaves me stunned, wishing I had half the gumption to conjure such sorcery with fingers and keys.

One of my favorite series is Bordertown, from the brilliant minds of Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner and a whole slew of others.  A techno-magical dystopian city that exists on the border of Faerie and The World, where neither magic nor technology act as they should.  Where punk kids, outsiders and the Elven Lords intermingle, with motorcycles powered by spells and magical books inside magical books.  It steadied the rage within me, gave me a place to dream of and a thing I wanted to be a part of, not just as a reader but as a writer.

Coincidentally, Charles De Lint, Neil Gaiman and Steven Brust have also contributed to the Bordertown legacy, along with other favorites like Emma Bull, Will Shetterley, Midori Snyder, Delia Sherman, Holly Black, Cory Doctorow and Jane Yolen.  I keep working at a short story, an offering to the Border.  Maybe some day, my name will grace the table of contents of an anthology.

Writing, for me at least, is a part of a never-ending urge to create, to tell stories, to mutate perspective.  A way to filter truth, and to create something lasting that will find purpose for others beyond my original intentions.  I hope that in time my legacy will be as powerful as any of the authors listed above, that perhaps some 30 or 40 years from now (if reading hasn’t been outlawed), someone will include me in this list, even as a footnote.

Winter is Coming

Winter Is Coming, and damnitall I’m ready for it.  I’ve been ready, since I finished A Feast For Crows back in 2005.  I was hesitant when one of my friends handed me a copy of Game of Thrones, urging that I read the series.  “It’s the greatest fantasy series ever written, you have to read it.”

My response, of course, was, “Is the series done?”  To which my friend replied, “No.”

“Well I don’t want to start a series that hasn’t been finished.”

“No, really – greatest book ever.  And he has a plan to finish it.”

“Sure, okay.  I’ll read it when it’s done or close to.”

I eventually capitulated, proceeding to devour the entire series as if it were so many morsels of sweet intellectual nourishment.  The intrigue, the plotting and scheming, the grand scale of myths being written; it hooked me.  I’ve probably read the four books already written in the series at least a half-dozen times, each time gleaning new details our information.  I’m like an addict, with any book that I’ve enjoyed really, I want the next piece of the puzzle.

The Game of Thrones series gets its television premiere on April 17th, thanks to the hard work of HBO and David Benioff, among others.  The hype is palpable, to the point where people who aren’t a fan of the books (or don’t generally read books, let alone the massive tomes of A Song of Ice and Fire) are buzzing about the latest HBO series.  This isn’t surprising, given today’s marketing strategies.  Nor am I upset about it, being the obsessive-fan-type about some things.  I think that, based off the 12 minute preview I’ve seen, the show is off to a strong start.

The temptation is to act as a sort of aggregator, collecting links to videos of Game of Thrones; there are many, so I won’t shell the links here.  They all exist on both YouTube and HBO’s site, available for your perusal.  Today, however, they released a 25 minute documentary – a primer to Westeros, if you will.  It’s neat to watch, and chock full of information to get you geared up.  Also, probably useful to keep those less savvy from being totally overwhelmed.  That the producers want to put out all this information before the series really takes off, it’s evidence of their level of commitment.  It also stinks of fan service, but who cares?

On April 17th I’ll be glued to my couch.  It’ll keep me occupied until July 12th, when A Dance With Dragons supposedly hits shelves.  I’ll stick it out through the bitter end, no matter how long the wait.  Why though?  Why this madness?  Can it really be that good?

Well, no.  But it is close enough.  I know I couldn’t write it, so somebody had to.  And I’ve stuck it out this long, I’ve already committed and I know that there will be plenty of other fiction to keep me occupied until the end finally comes.  By the time the final book in the series appears, I’ll have probably read the series several dozen times.  It holds up that well.

But maybe you won’t like the books.  ASoIaF is long, verbose and complex.  There are so many threads being woven together that I’ve had to read the series a half-dozen times to piece them all together and search for hidden clues.  The wait has been horrendously long, though it has yet to reach the scale of The Wheel of Time or The Dark Tower.  We have no guarantee that the last book won’t be finished until post-mortem (my vote is for Rothfuss or Brust), but I’m okay with that.  And the books are violent, depressing and no character is safe.  Maybe you just want to watch the show.  I won’t judge you this time.

 

Coming soon in future posts:  stuff.

Room for Discourse

This is an article I had originally written for Fantasy Faction, which I thought I’d share here:

 

Room for Discourse

 

Everyone has read a novel that changed the way they perceive the world around them or caused them to reexamine facets of their own lives. Perhaps the change was dramatic, but most often it was a subtle and lingering effect. History contains thousands of examples, from Pliny the Elder and Aristotle to more modern examples, like Philip K. Dick and Steven Jay Gould, of how literature can be used as a vehicle for social and cultural discourse.

There are many examples, both lofty and literary, of philosophies and anthropological treatises in our continuing conversation on society, culture and human nature. Poets and novelists fill libraries with the subject, but the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy are often overlooked, or worse, dismissed as being childish escapism.

This hasn’t always been the case and there are examples of science-fiction stories and works of dystopia that have ascended to the heights of literary classics or cultural icons. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm come to mind, as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick come to mind as well.

 

Spoonful of Sugar

 

Science-fiction, often being set in humanity’s future where cultures and technologies have evolved as we move amongst the stars and our alien peers (or enemies), can be easy to understand and interpret as food for thought. The wonders of new worlds, where sects of society can flourish uninhibited, appeals to the imagination. The mysteries of other species can be like shadow puppets, examining humanity’s xenophobia and fear of that which is different through the trappings of the exotic and terrifying. It can be a delicate examination of expansionism, nationalism or civic pride painted on a canvas as big as the imagination and wrapped in a tale of daring adventure.

In the Fantasy settings, these trappings can be further exaggerated while we focus on imperialism, zealotry, slavery and the nature of Evil. We detail the triumph of human ingenuity and spirit as our lowly farm boy overcomes his station and becomes champion to the world. The indomitable spirit of Justice and the forces of Good prevailing despite overwhelming odds can be inspiration to overcome our daily dragons.

Horror, as a sub-set of Fantasy, explores the darker aspects of human nature. Serial killers, horrific monsters and overwhelming fear of the darkness lurking at the edge of our vision spur us to look for the light in the world as much as they titillate us with gruesome images. Stories of the world overtaken by ravenous, mindless undead hordes can be critique of greed and complacency.

What makes these genres that much more subversive than anything else? And what is it about them that makes social and cultural discourse more palatable? Some works are far more blatant about their philosophies than others, such as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Others, such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire presents critical thought on politics and morality amidst the scheming, warring and backbiting. Creating a fantastic setting allows a writer to take themes or ideas out of a modern context and frame them in the abstract, altering perspective and perception.

 

Love and Hate

 

In the best works of Fantasy and Science-Fiction, we find evil in the strangest places. The best villains are sympathetic, so that even as you cheer for their downfall you still reach an understanding in their motivations. Even more so are the anti-heroes, who do what is right even if it is ultimately self-serving, and whose morals and means are questionable. They are the assassins, wetboys, barbarians and warlords that populate modern fantasy, hardened killers and callous thieves holding onto ancient grievances and deep-seated scars.

These anti-heroes and villains represent the moral gray area, and give us pause to reflect on ourselves and how we would act, put into such a situation. The lowly farm boy, full of pluck and vigor, has given way to the endearing urchin, suffering abuse and cruelty and set out on revenge.

The monsters our heroes face are often human traits given substance. The dragons of old Europe, creatures of pure avarice and destruction perched high on their mountains of treasure, waiting to devour the next would-be slayer. The vampire as our desire for immortality and eternal beauty, but also as our obsession with death. Werewolves and the like can be seen as representative of our conflict with our own animal natures. Those things that we dislike in others are often the traits we fear in ourselves, projections of our own self-image. It would make sense then that these traits become symbols for the hero to overcome.

 

A Civil Discourse At The End Of The World

 

The Apocalypse and Dystopian worlds have long been fodder for writers, often blatant in their criticisms of society. In 1950, George R. Stewart published Earth Abides, one of the first novels to examine a world without people. In the novel, a plague eradicates all but a handful of our species, leaving the Earth once again in the care of nature. Isherwood Williams, the protagonist, explore the ruins of the United States and eventually gathers a group of survivors to him. Ish grows to fear the loss of humanity’s intellectual legacy as those who survive struggle with more mundane, day-to-day issues such as food, shelter, clothing and protecting their families. The story is told from Ish’s perspective, chronicling his change from isolationist on the edge of society to the father of a new one. Though written just after the second World War, the story holds up remarkably well as a dialogue on human nature.

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother presents the reader with a dystopian world only slightly removed from our own, as a terrorist attack destroys San Francisco’s East Bay Bridge and the Department of Homeland Security places the city under martial law. The story is one of extremes, of government in the hands of zealots, the effects of American complacency and the spirit of rebellion and civil discourse that the United States was originally founded under. The protagonist of the tale is a 17-year-old kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to examine his role in society and how he comes to form a grass-roots rebellion to overthrow an authority grown corrupt. It is a story that hits close to home, of civil liberty and the post 9/11 culture of fear in America.

There are so many tales of corrupt governments and humanity’s survival, it would be impossible for me to list all of them. While often less subtle in their analysis and critique, they still provide the reader with a heaping spoonful of moral fiber to chew on, amidst the chaos and adventure. Other great examples are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In Storm Constantine’s Wraethu, she presents a post-apocalyptic world where humans have begun to be overshadowed by the Wraethu, our next step in evolution. The tale is as much an adventure in strange magics and alien cultures as an examination of gender roles amongst human society.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

 

Maybe you don’t want to swallow some heavy philosophical diatribe when you read. Maybe all you want out of your SF/F&H are crunchy action bits and thrilling acts of escapism. Maybe you want to live in another world for a few hours, or a few hundred pages, at a time. To experience the joys and sorrows of someone else, as they quest to save their family, the world or even just themselves.

Isn’t the need or desire for escapism a comment in and of itself? Perhaps you need a vacation from the stress of work, school or family. Perhaps you feel your life is so dull and mundane that you need to spend some time in Middle-Earth, Malazan, Dragaera or Melnibone. Or maybe, in your pursuit of sciences, you read space operas to inspire your worldy interests. Maybe you love to envision new cultures as a way to examine the rise and infuences of cultures from our world’s past or to speculate on an alternate course in history.

What books have made you think? What books have made you consider a different perspective, or try and understand the world in a different way? What books have filled you with a sense of outrage for injustices both fictional and real? Did I miss one of your favorites? Do you think I’m wrong? Tell me in the comments, and let there be discourse.