Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.

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Fantasy has vampires prolonging their life by drinking blood, while science fiction offers medical immortality or the uplifting of consciousness to machines. Readers, quite obviously, like to play with the idea of living forever. Yet the more I think about the possibility, the less I’m convinced that everyone is suited to immortality.

Of course, if immortality (and a reasonable degree of youth) ever becomes a possibility, I imagine that it will be reserved for the rich. I imagine, too, that if immortals are in charge of the process that created them, the selection process will be rigorous. There’s an issue of Garth Ennis’ graphical novel Preacher in which the vampire Cassidy meets the first other vampire in over a century. To Cassidy’s disappointment, his fellow vampire turns out to be “a bit of a wanker. ” After trying to reform him, Cassidy ends up leaving him to be destroyed by the rising sun – an ending that is only sensible if you stop to think about it. A long life is going to lose much of its zest if you have to spend it with highly annoying people, so immortals would want to choose their peers with care.

However, what I am really thinking of is that most people are simply not equipped for a long life. For the kind of person for whom time is something to fill – the kind who spends their weekend shopping, or their evenings at a bar – living seventy years or so can must be hellish enough. Several centuries of filling time would probably end with such people committing suicide, or perhaps turning violent in the hopes of finding another thrill.

Either seems a waste of immortality and a source of unhappiness for everyone. I suspect that good candidates for immortality would be those who know how to keep busy, and never have enough time for everything – artists and artisans of all sorts, and scholars.

Yet even being inner-directed might not be enough for immortals. Many artists do not have seventy years of work in them, much less several thousand.

It strikes me that a well-adjusted immortal would have to maintain a fine balance. On the one hand, they would need a strong tolerance for routine. The English playwright Christopher Fry remarked that the problem with being 94 was that time seemed to move so fast that he seemed to be eating breakfast every five minutes, and the problem would probably only get worse with the centuries. A well-adjusted immortal would have to be able to endure all the repetitive eating, urination, sleeping, grooming and sex without boredom setting in. Better yet, routine would need to be a comfort for them.

Yet, on the other hand, a suitable immortal would also need to accept change without falling into the traps of condemning or embracing everything new or living in nostalgia and gradually falling hopelessly out of touch. This is a balance that ordinary mortals struggle with, but I imagine that successful immortals would be those who could live the same routine for twenty or thirty years, then shake it off and find a new routine to settle into.

However, perhaps all this is beside the point. Perhaps the human brain and/or consciousness simply isn’t equipped for a longer life span. Perhaps a point arrives for everyone at 70, 90, or 110 when the sense of self simply collapses into senility, overloaded with memories and perceptions. But if humans ever manage to live significantly longer, those who manage to do so with any degree of contentment will be only a very small percentage of the population. For many immortals, the mental torment might make them think Tithonus had things good, living forever but aging into a cricket.

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Imagine, if you will, a 19th Century England ruled by James III, popularly known as Good King Jim, and forever bedeviled by the Hanoverian supporters of Bonnie Prince George. It’s a world where wolves have slunk through the Channel tunnel to haunt the landscape, and over in New England a pink whale struggles to save its obsessed pursuer. In South America, Guinevere awaits the return of King Arthur, having foresightedly frozen the lake across which he is supposed to return and taken it with her when she fled the Saxons. Meanwhile, children are disappearing in the north of England, where the mysterious figure of Gold Kingy has declared independence from the south.

If any of this inspired lunacy sounds appealing, you owe it to yourself to look up Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles. Published between 1962 and 2005, the twelve books of The Wolves Chronicles are an example of the kind of children’s fantasies at which the English seem to excel: short, fast-paced, and madcap, and, if anything, even more appealing to adults than children.

The titles alone are enough to be alluring to those with even the shortest DNA sequence for appreciating poetry. Starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, they continue with Black Hearts in Battersea, working their way through titles like Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, and Cold Shoulder Road to conclude in The Witch of Clatteringshaws. But this is hardly surprising, considering that Aiken is also the author of the lines, “Midnight is not a moment / Midnight is a place” – one of the best evocations of mystery and wonder ever written.

Besides all the fantasy elements and sheer poetry, what makes The Wolves Chronicles work so wildly well is Aiken’s Dickensian sense of place and plot. She not only uses plot elements like child labor and the street life of the London poor, but her stories are full of chance encounters with people who turn out to be long-lost sisters or orphan boys who are really the heirs to Dukes, and people thought dead turning up alive and well.

In other hands, this material could be a disaster, but Aiken carries it off with a high-handed disregard for logics or physics. In Aiken’s hands, it seems perfectly normal that plotters against the king might put Westminster Abbey on casters so they can roll it into the Thames during the coronation. Another plot involves a gun aimed at the king from across the Atlantic, but the best part is not the gun itself – which is first mistaken for a telescope or pipeline – but the fact that the local Americans are only made to care about the plot against the English monarch when they learn that the recoil will leave Nantucket adjacent to that den of iniquity called Atlantic City. Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, this is silliness of the highest order, requiring that the writer never reveal that she knows how cracked it all is, and Aiken never lets on that she is anything except primly earnest.

If the series has a fault, it is that its two most frequently occurring characters, Dido and Is Twite, are too similar to one another. However, since both are resourceful and determined, that hardly matters. Besides, if Dido and Is sometimes blur together, there are always a handful of eccentric characters around them to keep things interesting, especially villains like the sinister but musical Pa Twite or the evil governess Miss Sleighcarp and the Hanoverian ambassador the Margrave of Nordmarck.

Currently, about a third of the series is out of print. Fortunately, each novel is self-contained, and Aiken is deft about summarizing what readers need to know about past events in the first few pages, so that having read each book’s predecessors is unnecessary.

Still, the unavailability of some of the titles is regrettable. Although some of the novels are stronger than others, all are masterpieces in miniature, light yet showing what fantasy can be at its finest.

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You find them among the side streets off side streets, the places that are never traceable by GPS, where you can never get pizza deliveries. You can only find them on foot, but better that you never try.

But if you do, you may find them where the hulks of cars are stacked like dirty dishes, in garages of white plaster, where the concrete in the bays is so slick with old oil that you could skate across them in your running shoes. Their hair is thin and snarled, and their overalls stiff with grime. They are the automancers, and you really do not want to meet them.

But if you do, be sure you bring the first part of the price with you. No need to tell you what it is, if you have come so far. Nor I would not encourage you with specifics, any more than I would suggest you come without it.

But if you come, pay the first part of the price before they ask. You will not want to hear more of their voices than needful.

When you have paid and are calm again, they will cram their sleeves above their elbows and demand that you pick a car from among the wrecks. Choose well, but do not take long in making your choice, in case they choose for you instead.

But no matter who chooses, they will read for you. What they will read is the rust, the warps, and the punched-in hollows. Pondering the cylinders, your heart’s health is seen, and your lungs in the manifold of the exhaust. Scrawled in the corrosion of a battery may be the span of life that is left to you, and in the web of cracks across a windshield the blindness that will leave you to stare at nothing in the final months of your life. No matter how you felt when you hunted them out, by the time you leave, you will not want to hear.

But your ears will not help but hear, nor will your eyes forget, although in the middle of many nights after, you will wish they could. And a time may come when you look for the automancers again, this time carrying matches and oil.

But if that time comes, better hope that your feet no longer remember the way. They say that automancers’ shapes are fickle in the full moon, that they sport then, headlighted on the highway. They say, too, that a man who spoke against them lingered seven years on the road in their service, his belly pitted by potholes and his will kept by the holder of his keys. They say many things about the automancers, and many of them are true, including the contradictory ones.

When the craving to find them a second time is upon you, better that you remain at home. Better that you surround yourself with friends, if any remain when they learn of your visit (and they will always know, no matter how much secrecy you pride yourself in having). Rather than finding the automancers a second time unwanted, better you stay where you are and let them find you, when the time comes to pay the second half of the price.

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I spent most of Grade Six drawing maps. The result is a knowledge of geography that serves me well to this day, except for a few newer states in Central Europe and Asia. Another result is that I fully agree with Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland that most fantasy maps lack any sense of geography, history, or economics.

Recently, I’ve been spending my free time refining the map that will be the background for my efforts at fiction. As I work, I’ve developed some basic rules for ensuring that, whatever else I might do wrongly, at least the geography in my fantasy world will be plausible:

  • Remember continental drift. Your land masses should look as though they would roughly fit into each other. If you have trouble coming up with realistic land masses, try sketching the outlines of clouds or stains; you’ll be surprised how realistic the result will be.
  • Rivers and streams don’t start and end just anywhere. They arise in the mountains or hills, and usually empty into a larger body of water, such as a lake or an ocean. A few may go underground instead. Almost all grow wider as they move away from their source.
  • Mountain ranges are generally the result of the collision of tectonic plates. This means that they will rarely meet at convenient right angles to each other, the way that the mountains of Mordor do in Tolkien.
  • Ecosystems follow set patterns. You don’t have a rain forest next to tundra or desert. Instead, you have prairie and scrubland inbetween. A half an hour’s research on climate zones should be enough for you to get the idea.
  • Cities, towns, and farms don’t appear just anywhere. They are separated by however much land is needed for them to be self-sustaining, the only exceptions being large towns that are supported by a circle of small towns and farms that support them. In a primarily rural culture, they will be close to a water source. As population and trade develop, habitations may be positioned to service traffic on a road, or to take advantage of a certain trade. When you place a habitation, know why it’s there, even if the reason never gets into the story.
  • Consider how people get around. If water is the main transport, you need either a lot of coast line or else large rivers that can be navigated for much of their length. If roads are used more than water, then you’ll have several grades of road, probably ranging from highways like the Roman roads to half over-grown foot paths. All these decisions will affect how far anyone can travel in a day.
  • Forests and wilderness areas are much larger in pre-industrial cultures than they are today.
  • Most lands have a history that involves a succession of different cultures passing through them. Your names should reflect that, suggesting borrowings or corruptions from several different languages mingling together. A particular region might have a concentration of names from one language, and you should know why.
  • Be prepared for your landscape to evolve as you write. However, if changes are necessary, try to make them follow the rest of the guidelines given here.

Put this way, many of these points may sound obvious. But open the frontspiece of your typical fantasy paperback, and the chances are that the map will suffer from one or more of the faults I mention. Some have nearly all of them.

But take the time to create a believable map, and you’ll know more about your story’s background. You might even find story details or plot elements that wouldn’t have occurred to you if you map didn’t have at least a toehold in reality.

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The Lord of the Rings is one of the books to which I’ve kept returning in my life, and I’ve seen the movies several times. So, when I heard that a group of fans were issuing a prequel called The Hunt for Gollum, and offering it for free viewing on the web (in the hopes that, if profit wasn’t an issue, issues about copyright violation might be ignored), I was immediately intrigued. It’s far from the first movie made this way, but my interest in Tolkien meant that it’s the first that I have actually made the effort of watching. What I saw was a homage to the films, obviously made on the cheap and lacking plot, but far from the worst forty minutes I’ve spent watching a movie.

The movie is a prequel to the trilogy in which Aragorn hunts down Gollum and captures him for questioning. These events are mentioned in The Fellowship of the Ring as having happened recently, but are not shown directly (the better, no doubt to keep Aragorn off stage until he makes his mysterious entrance at Bree).

The camera work, staging, costuming, and music could almost have come straight from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. Like Jackson’s movies, The Hunt has long, panoramic shots of landscapes. When something is about to happen, Aragorn – who is in-camera for most of the forty minutes – strikes a pose while the camera lingers on him. When he is wounded, he has a mystical vision of Arwen, the elf woman who has his heart. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gives unsubtle hints about what is about to happen.

In short, the grand opera mannerisms of Peter Jackson are imitated as closely as possible. Even the characters, from Gollum to Gandalf and the orcs are based heavily on the movie (even if Aragorn does look a little too much like a poetic grad student, and not enough like someone who sleeps rough most nights). You might consider this imitation a lack of originality, but I suspect it shows more the sincerity of the makers. The Hunt is above all else a homage, a re-creation of the atmosphere developed by Jackson by people who full-heartedly love it.

The trouble is, of course, is that a slight difference in budget exists. If you’re looking, you should have no difficulty in seeing where money is conserved. For example, a scene set in a house looks like a modern pub or antiqued kitchen, while a conservatory with anachronistic glass serves as a stand-in for Rivendell. You get one elf, only three or four orcs whose makeup shows. Most obviously, Gollum is seen close up in only one shot, and, in fact, spends most of his time in a sack hung over Aragorn’s shoulder, which poerhaps llows more than one person to play him.

However, most of these budget measures are unobtrusive, unless you make a point of looking for them. The one exception is the unavailability of Gollum in closeup, which reduces much of the drama, leaving poor Aragorn to respond to a sack. Adrian Webster, the actor playing Aragorn, tries valiantly, but no actor, no matter how skilled, can do much to save essentially dramaless scenes.

But the greatest problem with The Hunt for Gollum is the script. Granted, the scope of the story that can be told in forty minutes is limited. All the same, there is a difference between a string of incidents that related to each other only by when they happen, and a plot, in which one incident leads to another – and, for most of the forty minutes, the movie offers only a string of incidents. They are acceptably acted and staged incidents, but they do not form a plotted story.

Still, full credit to the production team for its ingenuity. The same team is already working on a science fiction thriller, and, while I was not absolutely entranced by this first effort, I was impressed enough that I’ll check on its progress every now and then. There are dozens, if not thousands of half hour TV shows that entertained me less, and if I sound flippant, the reason is that my interest in Tolkien made me hope for something marvelous instead of simply well-done. I only hope that, second time out, the team remembers to arm itself with a tighter script.

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Since I’m a Canadian, Memorial Day doesn’t mean much to me. Our May long weekend is Victoria Day, and is often the weekend before. From the times I’ve been travelling in the United States on the Memorial Day long weekend, it seems to involve a lot of parade drill from everyone from octogenarians to people in wheelchairs – and as a sport, parade drill is low on the list for breakneck action and usually looks faintly ridiculous to my outsider’s eye. But I do remember one unforgettable Memorial Day, when we visited the fantasist Avram Davidson at the Veteran’s Hospital in Bremerton, Washington.

As you may know if you have any taste for literary fantasy, Avram was one of the great fantasists and humorists of the 20th Century. But, as sometimes happens with greater writers, he was not very skilled at taking care of himself. Through poverty, he had developed the habit of living in small towns where rents were cheaper, and, according to him, moving on when he had exhausted the local library.

In the last couple of years of his life, this habit had brought him to Bremerton. When his long-neglected health began to fail, he landed in the local veteran’s hospital, thanks to his service in World War 2 as a hospital corpsman in the Marine Corp in the Pacific. There, from the narrow confines of his room, he fought a running battle with the bureaucrats of the hospital and of Veteran Affairs, none of whom were used to dealing with patients who were not only highly intelligent but who had a high degree of curmudgeon and anarchist in their mental makeup.

Perhaps it was a campaign in this ongoing battle that prompted Avram to invite everyone he knew within a day’s travel distance to the hospital’s Memorial Day celebration, just to annoy his opponents. Or maybe Avram’s famous generosity, so long denied because of his poverty, seized on the celebration as a overdue way to treat his friends and repay them for their visits. He could, too, have been restless in the limitations of his life, and worrying that he might not have long to live.

Knowing Avram, the invitation was probably extended for all these reasons. But, whatever his motivations, the invitation went out, and we drove down from British Columbia that morning with all the excitement that inhabitants of Hobbiton must have tramped over to the party field to celebrate Bilbo’s birthday party.

The trip was memorable as the only one we ever took south of the border in which the American customs guard did not interrogate us on the strength of our rustbucket Maverick.. In those days (and possibly still, for all I know), custom jobs were veteran-preferred postings. The second that the guard heard that we were visiting the veteran’s hospital, he smiled and waved us through without another question.

When we got there, we found that the hospital had laid dozens of tables out on the lawn. The celebration was in full swing, but we had no difficulty finding Avram. He was sitting as far away from the bandstand as possible, surrounded by a dozen people, holding court in his wheel chair and telling stories about recent and past events.

At this late date, I don’t remember everything everyone said. But I do remember that, when someone noted that a tavern sat just beyond the hospital grounds, Avram said that many of the patients would go to any length to get to the hard liquor served at the tavern. When the hospital tried to discourage the custom by planting a pole in the gap of the fence, so that wheelchairs couldn’t squeeze through it, wheelchair patients would drag themselves along the fence, inch by painful inch, to get to the tavern. On Friday nights, he said, they looked like insects spread across a windshield as they clung there.

At some point, too another guest took out a letter he had been asked to forward to Avram six months ago. To my surprise, it was from me – I had completely forgotten the incident.

The stories and jokes went on, many told by Avram, but others contributing their share as well. A band arrived and played the usual American patriotic songs. We continued talking, oblivious to the occasional glares from other visitors. We lined up for food, and the hospital staff glared at our numbers and said nothing. The celebrations ended, and staff started to clean, until only our table was left standing, and still we talked. We didn’t care. I don’t know how Avram’s other visitors were feeling, but I felt as though I had stumbled into a London coffee house on an evening when Samuel Johnson was holding forth, and I didn’t want the evening to end. If we hadn’t had a ferry to catch and a two hour drive on the other side, we might have stayed until midnight.

As things happened, that was the last I saw of Avram. He was dead less than a year later, having left the veteran’s hospital for a basement suite in the town just before the bureaucrats could throw him out. I understand that he was only found a couple of days after he died, and I don’t like to think about his final moments alone.

Instead, I prefer to think of him as I last saw him when I looked back across the grass. He looked tired, but he was obviously in his element, telling stories and laughing at what other people said – a master storyteller even in his leisure.

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