'We Have Always Fought': Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative
I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves – lemming-like- over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there.
Every story you hear about llamas is the same. You see it in books: the poor doomed baby llama getting chomped up by its intemperate parent. On television: the massive tide of scaly llamas falling in a great, majestic herd into the sea below. In the movies: bad-ass llamas smoking cigars and painting their scales in jungle camouflage.
Because you’ve seen this story so many times, because you already know the nature and history of llamas, it sometimes shocks you, of course, to see a llama outside of these media spaces. The llamas you see don’t have scales. So you doubt what you see, and you joke with your friends about “those scaly llamas” and they laugh and say, “Yes, llamas sure are scaly!” and you forget your actual experience. Continue reading
The Many Faces of an Alien
Aidan was kind of enough to give me the pulpit and asked me to share my thoughts on why I think aliens make such great enemies/sources of conflict in science fiction. Now, before I delve deeper into this, I believe it is important to break down the roles of aliens within the science fiction genre.
I find that these truly alien “Aliens” tend to make poor primary plot devices since readers need to make some sort of connection with antagonists in order for them to be effective enemies.
Aliens are portrayed usually in one of two ways. First, in the true sense, they are introduced as something completely foreign to Earth and our way of thinking. We tend to have a difficult time grasping their physiology, method of thinking, and purpose behind their logic. I find that these truly alien “Aliens” tend to make poor primary plot devices since readers need to make some sort of connection with antagonists in order for them to be effective enemies. Good storytelling requires the reader to sympathize or understand the characters in a book. Otherwise, the alien just devolves into being an antagonist for antagonists’ sake. Or in the words of Tropic Thunder, it’s like going “full retard.” The exception to that is if these antagonists are there only to serve as a plot device to reflect the focus of the story back onto the protagonist. It’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey sort of storytelling.
The second way that aliens are portrayed in science fiction is to make them not alien at all and uses them as a literary vehicle to explore social issues within our culture and society. Usually, the author does this a safe distance by hiding behind the façade of portraying an alien culture, but can delve deeply into lingering prejudices and social stereotypes. Continue reading
Rinse and Repeat?
The idea behind my recent series, the Aetherial Tales, is simple: I wanted to write my own version of the “other-race living among us” trope, but in my own individual way. Although each novel can be read as a stand-alone, the most recent volume, Grail of the Summer Stars, completes a bigger story arc that was simmering in the background of Elfland and Midsummer Night. And that set me thinking about the themes – conscious or otherwise – that keep cropping up in an author’s work.
For years I had this idea in my head that every new book I wrote had to be completely different from the last, different from anything else that’s ever been written! Sigh. It took a while, but eventually I accepted that this is impossible. Well – at least incredibly rare and not always desirable. (Readers often want “more of the same”, and why not?) Virtually everything that can be written about already has been, and will be again, over and over. And that’s fine: many themes are universal because we can all relate to them. Love, birth, death, survival, finding the place we truly belong, war, crime and justice, the hero’s journey, and so on, are timeless and resonant. They don’t have to become clichés, as long as the author can bring an individual voice, pull something fresh from a well of compassion, wit or wisdom that engages the reader. Continue reading
A Rule of Thumb for Escapism
When it comes to discussing the appeal of SFF and its various affiliated subgenres, escapism is an extremely relevant consideration. Given how strongly a pro-escapist perspective correlates with a pro-SFF perspective, and vice versa, the term has become a loaded one, such that a species of argumentative shorthand has developed around its usage. Thus: if escapism is a negative, then so too is the desire for escape, casting those who seek or enable it as naïve, childish daydreamers disconnected from reality. If escapism is a positive, then the pursuit of escape is a noble one, allowing us to transcend the limitations of what is in favour of embracing what could be. Though ostensibly a tried and true dichotomy, the term is ultimately inaccurate in this context: the escapist/realist schism is a false binary, not only because the presence of one element doesn’t preclude the presence of the other, but because both escapism and realism are subjectively realised states, not objective truths.
If escapism is a negative, then so too is the desire for escape, casting those who seek or enable it as naïve, childish daydreamers disconnected from reality.
Despite this fact, the fallacy remains a popular one, both at the external level (SFF is less realistic than straight fiction, and therefore less worthy) and the internal level (aspirational fantasy is less realistic than gritty fantasy, and therefore less worthy). Which isn’t to say such conversations are wholly without merit; indeed, a great deal of useful dialogue is spawned by them. It’s just that, at a fundamental level, there’s a tendency to hark back to an either/or that doesn’t exist, but to which we’ve historically ascribed inordinate importance. By definition, all fiction contains elements of escapism and realism, in that it both includes untruths and, being born of reality, is necessarily tethered to it – the only mitigating factor here is the ratio of truth to lies, and given the wildly divergent ends to which fiction can be turned, to say nothing of the myriad possible interpretations of truth, there’s hardly a rule of thumb for determining even that much with any degree of accuracy. The question of whether escapism constitutes a positive or negative force in SFF has nothing to do with its presence, therefore, but rather with the twofold matter what it is we’re escaping from and into. Continue reading
So You Want to Have a War?
Starting with Tolkien, it’s become practically obligatory that the epic fantasy saga, somewhere around the middle of book three, feature an Epic Confrontation Between Good and Evil with a Cast of Thousands.
I am, I have to admit, a war buff. I read military histories for fun, the kind with fold-out maps covered in little colored arrows and notations like “Kollowrath (40,000)”. As I am also a fantasy novelist, the nature of war in fantasy fiction has always been fascinating to me.
And there is a lot of war in fantasy. Starting with Tolkien, it’s become practically obligatory that the epic fantasy saga, somewhere around the middle of book three, feature an Epic Confrontation Between Good and Evil with a Cast of Thousands. Various allies, painfully recruited over the course of the hero’s journey, turn up to lend a hand at the Final Battle. Various villains are dispatched, hapless orcs or equivalent humanoids are mowed down by the score, and just when things seem bleakest Evil is defeated forever. A beloved secondary character or two bites the dust, and someone gets to make a Heroic Sacrifice. Afterward, we may be treated to a scene where the hero roams a battlefield strewn with corpses, or visits the injured to bring home the horrors of combat. You know, war, right?
Back before I wrote fantasy myself, my wargamer friends and I used to snicker a bit at this. Most of the fantasy authors wouldn’t know a halberd from a half-pike, and their descriptions of battles were usually heavy on bold strokes and dramatic confrontations and light on tactics and the important of proper reconnaissance. I wouldn’t want to be a poor foot-slogger in either army, given the rate at which they tend to be chewed up by either the hero and his friends or some villain demonstrating the full extent of his power. Continue reading