Hugo season is among us. With it comes a lot of enthusiastic discussion about the best that the science fiction and fantasy community had to offer in the previous year. 2013 was a big year for science fiction and fantasy fans. Yesterday, I posted a list what I expect to put on my own Hugo ballot when I cast my nominations in a few weeks.
This, on the flip side, is a collection of A Dribble of Ink‘s finest moments over the past year. For writing and editing A Dribble of Ink, I’m personally eligible for the ‘Best Fan Writer’ Hugo Award, but I believe there are many more suitable writers more prolific and deserving of the award than me (think Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, Justin Landon, and Foz Meadows.) So, instead, just like last year, this eligibility and ‘Best of…’ post will not focus on my personal output, but instead the wonderful content I had the privilege to publish in 2013. As A Dribble of Ink‘s audience continues to grow, the community and conversation has grown around it, and has contributed positively to the ongoing discussion of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction in general.
Of note was Kameron Hurley’s tremendous “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”, which was read over 135,000 times in 2013. Some early Hugo voters are suggesting that it be nominated for “Best Related Work,” and idea that is equally humbling and flattering for both Hurley and A Dribble of Ink.
I hope you’ll consider A Dribble of Ink when you’re making your nominations during this Hugo Award season.
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.
This was the post of 2013 for A Dribble of Ink. 135,000+ views, hundreds of comments, and, even now, dozens of emails about the impact that Kameron’s exploration had on readers. I’m very proud to have published this.
You don’t see a lot of gunpowder in fantasy.
It’s there, especially in historical fantasy. But it’s not as common as one might think. Most fantasy seems to take place in a pre-gunpowder period despite gunpowder having been around in our own world since the middle ages. I think this has a lot to do with what we read when we were kids. Many of us grew up on medieval fantasy. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis dominated my childhood. When I was old enough to go looking for books at the library, I read David Eddings, Tracy Hickman, and Robert E. Howard. None of the stuff I read had any gunpowder in it and when I first started writing all my settings were medieval.
The conversation in the genre blogosphere lately has been leaning heavily to grittiness, grimdark, and whether they serve a purpose—and whether there’s any difference between the two. A lot of bloggers and commenters seem to be settling on the idea that “grimdark” is the pejorative, so perhaps that is how I will use it here.
Now, I love a good tragedy as much as the next guy. If the next guy is William Shakespeare.
I believe in fiction where actions have consequences, and sometimes terrible prices are paid, and sometimes good people meet fates you wouldn’t wish on Count Rugen. I would argue that darkness and uncertainty are a needful thing; that without them, there are no stakes, no emotional engagement.
I’m working on an idea for a secondary world urban fantasy about a young man who enters a very opulent city looking to become a master chef. The story follows his journey through various culinary-related careers — farmer, butcher, fisherman, baker, patissier, commis — until he opens his own restaurant and becomes a known quantity within the city. Although it doesn’t even sound like it would need to be set in a fantasy city, I’m still making it a fantasy because I’m comfortable with fantasy and I also want to explore the magic in food. Outside of writing and reading, cooking is a passion of mine.
However, as I’ve been outlining and drafting this novel (working title: Stock), it occurred to me that I was writing a fantasy novel with almost no violence (outside of a fistfight or two). The plot is resolved through hard work and cleverness. It got me to wondering why there aren’t more fantasy (or science fiction) novels that deal with issues outside of violence?
We thought it would be fun to bring two different perspectives (someone who’s read the series, someone who hasn’t), and explore Daggerspell together, comparing notes and reflecting on a series and world that are held dearly by many readers. We’re also hoping that, if you’re not familiar with Kerr, you might discover a new favourite author.
Daggerspell is the first volume in Katharine Kerr‘s Deverry Cycle, which Kate describes as her, “favorite post-Tolkien epic fantasy series.” Big words. She also says, “I believe Deverry could exist somewhere. After reading the books, I feel as if I have been there. I still think about events and dramatic moments in this series frequently, rather as I do memories from my actual life. That’s how much the narrative worked its way into my mind and heart.”
“Urban Fantasy” is a hot term these days. You hear it used to describe everything from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. It encompasses the work of authors from Patricia Briggs to Kim Harrison, from Ilona Andrews to Kevin Hearne. With such a diverse range of talent, the definition quickly loses meaning. There isn’t a whole lot that’s urban about the sleepy, small town of Bon Temps.
But that’s okay. Because urban fantasy has never been about urban settings. It’s about *contemporary* settings. It does a very simple thing: it takes the modern world, the one we live in every day, and ask the question, “What would this be like if magic were real?”
If the genre’s popularity is any indicator, that question has traction. Fantasy has, for much of its lifespan, been dominated by ancient and medieval settings. Many of the most enduring works in the genre, from Tolkien to Brooks to Feist, are set in pre-gunpowder, pre-industrial revolution worlds. But readers don’t ride to work on horses, hunt deer for dinner, or carry a sword to fend off the occasional Orc raid. Contemporary fantasy’s popularity suggests that many readers like to dream about the impossible right in their own backyard.
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.
There’s a kind of creeping horror that strikes the heart of an author when they discover the company with whom they have two novels out is slowly collapsing into a shambling mound, devourer of careers and eater of all working energy. Let’s be clear: Jason and Jeremy are not the subject of what I am discussing. There comes a point where people just sort of don’t make a difference much, because what matters is that the company is collapsing and it wouldn’t matter who was running the broken space ship into the wormhole. It’s sort of like working at any company that’s failing. It’s easy to play armchair quarterback and wonder at the decisions made. But, deep in the muck of collapse, what is it like?
Publishing isn’t the sort of gig that you go to work and go home and vent with your spouse about your day. It’s not like that at all. I work out of my house, and will have fewer than a dozen emails about a project in a year, unless there’s some serious marketing and promotion campaign happening, and then maybe two phone calls total. It’s not like there’s much water cooler chatter, most of the time. Most discussion channels are public. I can’t tweet about that rising uneasy feeling. I can only watch as news comes over the transom. Money problems, which are private, are sort of a low hum in the background of your mind. Money problems that are public are like a social media alert button, like Google alerts, a magic wand that summons author attention to even the most obscure rumor mills of the internet.
An author from an online writing group once offered some advice. He said a homosexual character should never be included in a story unless his/her sexual preference figured into the plot. Otherwise, it was a distraction, he said. To him, a gay character stood out—didn’t fit—and anything non-default about a character should be important to the plot.
Sometimes I get a dizzy feeling and I think I’m communicating with someone from another planet. This was one of those times. The idea that all characters must fit to some ‘default’ expectation threw me. How would I know who all my readers were, and what the ‘default’ was for them? Were they all straight? White? Middle-class? I didn’t think so. And where does one have to live so that homosexuals stand out as unusual? Yes, I have lived in urban areas most of my life, but still. Still. Even for an extremely plot-oriented writer (for whom characters are tools of the story), this guy was missing something.
In addition to these great writers, I am also proud of several articles and reviews that I wrote in 2013. The most popular of these include:
- “The Desolation of Tolkien: A Review of The Desolation of Smaug“
- “Avatar: The Last Airbender: An Exploration” (This is, perhaps, my favourite thing I’ve written for A Dribble of Ink.)
- Review of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
- “A Personal Challenge: Gender Balance in 2013″ (You can see the results of this challenge here.)
- Review of Witch Wraith by Terry Brooks
- Review of Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
This is a collection of A Dribble of Ink‘s best, most prolific, and most talked about content in 2013. This past year was one of the most exciting year’s in A Dribble of Ink‘s history, and the contributors and I have been so lucky to have such a diverse, engaged, and intelligent readership. So, thank you. And, now, onward to 2014!