- by Gitabushi
There’s not much time left, but you can get free SFF books by following this link. 5 are free, and a handful of lucky winners will be given more.
If that link doesn’t work, try this one.
There’s not much time left, but you can get free SFF books by following this link. 5 are free, and a handful of lucky winners will be given more.
If that link doesn’t work, try this one.
You gotta admit this was pretty bad, right?
…also, I think we need a “trolling” post tag.
I’ve let things slide, and now we’ve got a mega-packed edition! Here are some noteworthy things and stuffs from the last few weeks.
David over at Serpent’s Den explores just what it is about My Little Pony that has attracted so many fans, including many dudes.
“That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.”
Treat them like people. He’s got some advice beyond that, of course, but that’s what it boils down to. No feminist critical theory required.
Yavok Merkin outlines what he sees as the growing problem with the Star Wars franchise.
We’re not talking tacos. Jon M. at Seagull Rising compares the perceptions and accuracy of the terms “hard” and “soft” scifi. Been a lot of walk within certain circles about genre lately!
Jesse Lucas tells the short allegorical story of a boom town called Fairplay.
Semper Initiatuvs Unum blog ran a series of polls, pitting Appendix N authors against one another to see who would rise to the top of the heap. The winner may not surprise you, but the individual match-up posts themselves provide some great reading in the form of literary highlights.
Looking at Leiber
Gita Bushi throws some SFF bombs
Not intentionally. But he hates all that is good, obviously.
The Dune Wars
I have to say, I was slightly triggered by this guest post over at Castalia House, where Rick Stump’s son Alex tears into Dune. It’s one of my favorite books of any genre. But while I gathered my thoughts, a skirmish played out. And you know what? I’m good. Don’t need to touch this one right now.
No it isn’t! (Injustice Gamer)
Your response sucks (Rick Stump)
No it doesn’t (Injustice Gamer)
Yes it does (Rick Stump)
It’s hard to keep up with everything now; even with the Castalia House blog!
Oghma’s written a (horror?) story on his blog. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s intense. So I recommend checking it out, but be prepared!
Into the Night blog is following in the steps of Jeffro and others in tackling Appendix N as a reading list. He’s written brief impressions of several books so far, including the Dying Earth.
Hellboy, hell yeah!
“Hellboy is totally pulp. And not just because it has a tentacled space monster. Mike Mignola, the writer-artist of the original comic, points to Lovecraft, but he also points to Robert E. Howard. And not just to Conan but to Solomon Kane. And not just to Howard but to Manly Wade Wellman. Now you have my attention.”
I’ve been watching Iron First on Netflix and voiced more than a couple complaints on Twitter. I’m not the first to vocalize my disappointment in this weaksauce C-lister. Jeffro Johnson recorded his thoughts about each episode on Google+ and Rawle Nyanzi’s compiled them for us.
I generally don’t wish anyone ill, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate when stupid crap fails. I was a big fan of the Mass Effect series. Red flags started to pop up when I read of SJW developers bashing white people on Twitter and not losing their jobs. Andromeda looks to be a big disappointment, and I’m glad to see some prominent voices calling it what it is instead of propping it up.
Over at Goblin Stomper:
“A short time ago I was asked a rather intriguing and difficult question. “If you had to pick three books that paint a picture of the Fantasy Genre for someone, which would they be?” It was asked in the context of gaming/role-playing, and what books might best introduce a potential FRPG gamer with no experience with any facet of fantasy.”
Definitely some interesting picks! I read several of the Guardians of the Flame books when I was younger, so it was kind of a blast from the past to see the series named here. Very different selections that I’d make, most likely, but a cool thought experiment.
JimFear138 hosts fellow audiobook narrator and author Jon M on his show! I haven’t had a chance to listen to this yet, but both of these guys have been colorful and fun members of the Pulp Revolution crowd. Looking forward to this.
A cool post over at the Frisky Pagan digs into D&D creator Gary Gygax’s reactions to post-Appendix N scifi/fantasy and its influence upon the game.
Lately it seems like every time PC Bushi mentions a book, I have to respond I didn’t like it very much, or at all.
That made me ask, what do I like?
Here’s a partial list:
I like 50s Heinlein, but not 60s.
I like 60s, 70s, and 80s Larry Niven SF, but not his fantasy (mostly).
I like 80s and 90s Cherryh, but to the best of my knowledge based on a brief research attempt, not her 70s and by the ’10s, start feeling meh
I liked Bujold until recently
I liked Brust’s early works, but the later his work, the less I like it.
I used to like Hambly, but she wasn’t re-readable.
I like Saberhagen, but sometimes he just kept digging in played-out mines
To be honest, I guess, I’ve read a lot that was worth reading, but not worth re-reading or recommending.
As such, there are probably more books and authors I have complaints about than I enjoy. That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. Most things fall along a bell curve, and truly excellent books are one or more standard deviations above the mean, and the mean of all SFF novels/stories ever written includes some poor writing.
The rest of this post includes some musing on elements that make a good story. It is also intended to be a continuation of thoughts from this post, and inspired by the very excellent posts by my good friend and consummate gentleman, PC Bushi, found here and here.
I like conflict. I’d like to say all readers do, but maybe all I can actually insist is that all readers should. It can be internal conflict, or opposed action, but I want there to be some doubt about how things are going to turn out.
Yes, yes, the hero is going to win. That’s the point of reading a book, I guess. The good guy losing most of the time is called “life”. We consume fiction because it provides the comforting illusion that there is some overall, overarching narrative to the vicissitudes of life.
For me, the interesting thing is how is the hero going to win?
The very first thing to do, then, is make me care about the character. If I don’t care about the character, how he wins isn’t going to interest me.
There are many different ways that you, as an author, can make me care about a character:
Next, give him conflict. They type of story you are writing dictates the type of conflict they have. Or, alternatively, the type of conflict they encounter dictates what kind of book it is:
If he is going through an unfamiliar world or society, then the conflict is the hero trying to return to the normal world, and his efforts to escape let you show me the world/society you thought up. Alternatively, the hero might need to explore to figure out aspects of this new world/society to find happiness or even just survive. Either way, it should show the reader some subtle truth about the world we live in, in contrast. The struggle is in dealing with new and unexpected aspects in each new encounter. This is a Milieu story.
If he is dealing with a disrupting occurrence, then the conflict is obviously trying to deal with the disruption. It can be personally disruptive or disruptive to society, or even existence of humanity. An asteroid strike, or perhaps an earthquake or zombie apocalypse are good examples of this. Alternatively, the hero could be the disruptive force, trying to impose his will on the world, like in a caper movie like Ocean’s 11 or Kelly’s Heroes. Either way, the conflict comes from the obstacles the hero encounters in trying to resolve the issue or impose his will on the universe. This is an Event story.
You, as the author, might also want to explore a concept, like: what if teleportation were reality? How would it work? In this sort of story, the conflict is in dealing with unexpected or non-obvious impacts of the concept. This is where Hard SF really shines. Poor examples of this are when someone sets up the world, then lets the Hero “discover” all the exploits. This was handled really poorly in the “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” series (first book: Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell). The hero “exploits” a labor system that apparently was used by idiots for at least a generation. He succeeds at everything he tries, the things he “figures out” that impress everyone else are sophomoric in insight, and there isn’t even an antagonist. The best conflict is when the antagonist is exploiting the idea to the protagonist’s detriment, and the protagonist has to figure out how to stop it…preferably without just using another exploit…at the very least, the exploit should not be obvious. This is an Idea story. I think many “serial killer” stories are Idea stories: “What if someone developed a way to exploit society to murder/rape/assault people without being caught/stopped?”
The final type of story depends on conflict internal to the character. The protagonist needs to change, and it has only recently become obvious. The process of changing, of figuring out what to change into, and the normal human resistance to changing oneself are the conflict that drives the story. This is a Character story.
Obviously, these four concepts can arc beyond just one book. The Jhereg series is someone what of a character concept, although individual books seem to be more Event stories. The whole series is, of course, a milieu, and the milieu being explored is not just geographic (Dragaera) but societal/racial, as each book explores some inherent aspect of a Dragaerean house.
But this is all science fiction.
I also really like the Jack Reacher series.
Jack Reacher’s character really doesn’t change over the stories. The milieu he’s exploring is modern-day United States, so it isn’t a milieu story. There is a “What if?” concept of, “what if there were a sort-of modern-day Super Hero who went around the nation solving problems that the law couldn’t solve?” But it seems to me to be, at its core, an event story. Something happens, and Reacher tries to figure out what is happening, then once he figures out the mystery, he acts (often very violently) to impose his will and stop the bad guys from doing bad guy stuff.
Good stories often combine the elements. There are Milieu, Idea, and Character concepts included in the Event Story movie Die Hard. There are Milieu concepts in Titanic. I think Cameron wanted it to be a Character story, but in my opinion, it failed at that, but succeeded by being so strong as an Event story.
Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series is really good, too.
They are all Event stories. Like Reacher, either the protagonist starts ignorant, or what the protagonist thinks is the original premise often turns out to be false. The conflict comes in the protagonist collecting clues about reality, then responding to those clues, then acting. And much of the conflict also involves not knowing how the problem will be solved, as initial plans go wrong and the protagonist deals with the unexpected. You know the hero isn’t going to die, of course, but there is often a cost the protagonist pays to succeed: damage, or a supporting character important to the protagonist is killed.
The Matt Helm series is interesting in that the protagonist’s character doesn’t really change over time, but still is a character story in that Helm seems to have normal human emotions and desires, yet is forced to do some fairly brutal things to accomplish the mission. The reader (or, at least, the continuing reader) doesn’t lose sympathy for Helm not just because Helm’s character trait of Commitment to Duty is shown as being incredibly strong, and not just because that commitment to duty is shown as necessary to preventing catastrophe, but because the author shows us the emotional price Helm pays for that commitment.
In contrast, in ERB novels Princess of Mars, the Land that Time Forgot, and the People that Time Forgot, there never is any character conflict. They do the right thing because it is the right thing, with hardly a thought. It ends up leaving the impression that because the hero does it, it therefore is the right thing.
I’m not saying a protagonist must have a desire to be a cad to be sympathetic, but humans are selfish, and shortsighted, and petty, and often ignorant of the implications of their decisions. A good book with good conflict acknowledges those issues.
It doesn’t mean that I favor character over plot.
It does mean that the reasons people do things are important to whether a character is likeable or not, and believable or not, and these reasons often provide motive force to the plot. Why does a character want to do things? Absent any internal conflict, authors too often rely on plot devices to keep the action going. “I saved Tarkus’ life, so Tarkus will save my life” seems more like a plot device. The author knew he would need Tarkus to save John Carter’s life to resolve some conflict and needed plausible motivation for Tarkus to do so, so had Carter save his. It seems too obvious, like it happened because the author needed it to. In contrast, in Jhereg, Vlad wants to avoid taking an action that would cause Morollan to break his oath. Placing a friend’s value system above your own life is an admirable loyalty that drives the plot and increases the reader’s commitment to the protagonist and the story (although wanting to find a way to preserve both is still expected, normal, and included). It is a character element, sure, but it not “characterization over plot,” but rather an effective plot rather than just a plot device.
It means that a story with weak characterization is also going to suffer in plotting.
It means that among the five elements of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, description (some people identify different elements), a novel can be saved by excellence in just one element, but it can also be killed by incompetence in just one element. Most likely, a story that does one or two elements very well will make the other elements more effective. Good dialogue helps in making character and pacing better. Better pacing helps plot. Good description helps everything. And yes, good character helps make plot development more intuitive.
There is room for a difference of opinion over what is “plausible”, and consequently, what is an effective plot vs what is a clumsy plot device.
This probably needs editing for coherence, but I’m not going to do it. For good or ill, this is my stream-of-consciousness, non-exhaustive explanation of why I like some books and don’t like other books.
Spoiler: Okay, that was too strong, and I withdraw the charge. Sort of.
Don’t you love it when a writer starts off the story in the middle of the action, so you are immediately caught up in laser blasts and flying hand-axes?
So here’s the background.
There is a Pulp Resurgence going on. As a hopeful writer who is hopefully on the verge of being able to complete my first novel, I noticed the trend and thought it might be something worth paying attention to. As in, maybe I might want to write a pulp story.
So I tried to re-read some pulp SFF I liked when I was in my teens. And didn’t like it anymore.
The stereotype of pulp is that it is simplistic, juvenile, and immature. Its fans disagree. And they have a point: the writings of Dashiell Hammett are considered by some to be literature worth studying.
I personally enjoy reading Louis L’Amour, and while he is definitely a pulp Western writer, he has some interesting characters, occasional fascinating character growth, and some fairly intricate plotting at times.
But when it comes to SFF, I have to agree with the stereotype: it is immature writing that has been so surpassed by the state of the art that it doesn’t seem worth reading anymore.
So, of course, I had to say this on twitter, because that’s the Proper Location for Virtue Signalling.
Full disclosure: Twitter has changed me. It has helped me to mature and not be bothered by responses and attitudes that would have infuriated me not long ago. On the other hand, I’ve gotten to enjoy mild trolling, so I’m not always as careful with precise critiques as I would have been in the past.
And PC Bushi and I have a long-running mild disagreement…we both love SFF, but our tastes seem to be diametrically opposed. What he loves, I dislike. The only thing I love that I know he’s read is the Chronicles of Amber, but that’s enough to know that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. More data is needed.
Anyway, some people had been ripping on some authors PC Bushi liked, and we had a twitter conversation about it, as PC Bushi details here.
That led to me getting called out by a commenter here:
I am sorry but it just reads like nathan hasn’t read anything and is just using other people’s talking points. Couldn’t you describe Brust’s Taltos series as a guy just wandering around killing black elves?
(He later corrects himself note “black elves” is Cherryh’s construction, not Brust’s, but the Dragaereans are called elves, so his point is not undermined by the mistake)
Here is my response, in full:
So many ideas backing up in the pipeline, but things are super busy at work and home right now. Leisure time is at a premium, and if I don’t leise, I run out of material. So.
At any rate, Gita (Nathan Alexander on Twitter) and I, and some others, had a nice exchange earlier that I wanted to share here. I beg your pardon in regards to formatting; tweet threads aren’t always the easiest things to embed, and we’ve got multiple strands branching off. Some comments may have been lost to the ether here, and some may appear more than once. Also it’s going to look like on long block of tweets. Fun.
The start of the chain:
Jeffro’s been doing Sensor Sweeps for a while now, and I highly recommend checking them out from time to time for some good highlights of what’s been going on with the pulp/classic SFF crowd and some tabletop gaming commentary.
Back at my old blog, I used to do periodic roundups or features of interesting Japan-related content in that corner of the web. One of the things I really like about this neck of the woods is how much support there is for budding bloggers and other aspirants who want to get their thoughts out there and contribute to the scene. When I was starting out, I remember how exciting it was to get a plug from Jeffro or Cirsova (not that it’s not still exciting). Or getting a retweet from Daddy Warpig (11k followers and he noticed me…!).
Now that we’ve built a small but awesome audience, I hope to contribute in bringing light and eyes to some of the more excellent content I’ve been discovering. Unfortunately I can’t cover everything and everyone, but I’ll try to make sure these aren’t too infrequent. Also I beg your indulgence if I shamelessly highlight some of our own content, too.
Before I get to the meat – what’s a koshinbun? Well, shinbun (新聞) is the Japanese word for “newspaper.” During the early to mid Meiji period (mid-late 1800’s), there were two major types of papers in J-Land: the oshinbun (大新聞), which were the big, usually political publications, and the koshinbun (小新聞), which were more focused on “pop” topics, like local news or fiction.
Anyway, here we go:
Jeffro brought several new writers onboard this year to bolster an already strong stable of columnists. Daddy Warpig (Jasyn Jones) and Morgan have been stirring the pot with Jeffro in some sharp criticisms of Campbellian SFF. Worth reading, even if you disagree. For my part, here are the three pieces I’ve contributed so far:
Before straying too far from Daddy Warpig, I have to mention this podcast. I’d seen links to it before, but I don’t listen to much talk stuff on the computer. The other day it occurred to me that I could look for it on iTunes, as I do a lot of listening during my daily commutes. Hey – there it was! I’ve listened to two episodes so far and really enjoyed them both. It’s basically a bunch of intelligent, enthusiastic, nerdy guys sitting around talking about nerdy stuff. It’s a lot of fun! Daddy Warpig, along with Brian Niemeier and John McGlynn and their guests, are definitely worth a listen if you’re into SFF (and not just literary).
I’ve been following Oghma on Twitter for a while now, and his blog has gotten off to a roaring start. His stuff has been very thoughtful and thought-provoking. He’s shared some very candid life tales as well as some lighter nerd fare. To start, I’d draw your attention to:
In RPG’s do we even need races? – what do Hobbits bring to the table?
Props in Narrative Gaming – some great music and how-to’s on making a super cool scroll and other props that may liven up your pen and paper sessions.
Over at the Pulp Archivist, Nathan reminds us of some wise words from Edgar Rice Burroughs – that “entertainment is fiction’s purpose.” We would all do well to remember this!
I’ve written before about how there’s merit to newer editions of D&D, which afford players more room to be awesome (or overpowered, as the case may be) and is less punishing when it comes to player character death. Many old hands resent this approach to dungeon crawling, but it is what it is. Just because I’ve advocated for the more recent style of play doesn’t mean I’m in favor of coddling players when they play stupidly. The Mixed GM illustrates a good example here of where and how to draw the line.
Very specific! This one caught my eye because I’m an Oz fan, and Joshua’s number 2 pick is Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz. Baum was actually mentioned on Geek Gab recently as one of the more underrated fantasy authors of his time. Other names you may recognize on the list – H Rider Haggard and William Hope Hodgson.
In what’s shaping up to be a series of posts, Kestutis Kalvaitis has been writing about Timothy Zahn and his Thrawn trilogy – arguably some of the best work of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. He also mentions some of Zahn’s other scifi work in passing. I never did explore anything he did outside of Star Wars, but sounds worth a look.
Keith West expounds on how many of us enjoy both the pulps and Campbellian SFF, and lands on the fact that there’s room for both subgenres. I’ve argued this point myself, recently, and I think Keith’s voice strengthens my own view of the matter.
Alexandru Constantin puts forward a somewhat provocative idea –
“I think Howard writes Lovecraftian fiction better than Lovecraft. I like the idea of Lovecraftian more than I actually like Lovecraft’s writing. I find all his crap boring as all shit, filled with idiotic purple prose.”
He goes on to talk about how Howard manages to get that sense of weird and horror, but employs exciting, competent protagonists who take it to the unspeakable evil. Alexandru also brings up Howard’s pioneering of the “weird western” subgenre!
Some homegrown SFF for ya
Our own Kaiju and Gitabushi have been working on some sweet stories, both as of yet untitled. Feel free to check’em out: