- 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.
Something Jon said got me thinking. He observed that there are some talented young writers in SFF who are getting caught up in gimmicks and writing tricks and as a result are losing the plot, literally.
I think it’s true that for many contemporary writers, good storytelling is losing out to political and cultural commentary. Strong male heroes are so last century. Good and evil without nuanced, middling gradations are played out, man.
This is certainly a problem. I’m with you! This is a big reason why I’ve retreated down the Appendix N/ Grant List hole and haven’t had any strong desire to come back up for air.
Jon went on to say that these pre-30 authors don’t have the necessary experience to really sell us on what they’re writing. They don’t have the same juice to put into their works. And to some degree I think he’s right. Age and experience flavor and influence a writer’s stories. Look at Tolkien (as we always seem to). His part in World War I is directly observable in the Lord of the Rings. Mordor pretty much is Verdun.
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jon’s stuff yet, but it seems clear from what I’ve heard that Jon’s own experience as a father has greatly colored some of his work. And I dig that.
Still, I think we need to be cautious about writing off younger, more life-inexperienced writers, especially those in the vanguard of the pulp revival/revolution. I’m not saying here that Jon is doing so, as it sounds like he’s certainly giving the youngsters a reading and a fair shake. But just as something to chew on for all of us, let’s remember that SFF grandmaster Robert E Howard died at 30. Manly Wade Wellman was in his twenties when he put out his first novel. HP Lovecraft wrote “Dagon” when he was 27 years old.
Now those are some pretty big shoes, and it could very well be that Howard and Lovecraft and Wellman were exceptions to the rule. Still. I’m not entirely convinced that age is nearly as important as talent and imagination.
You gotta admit this was pretty bad, right?
…also, I think we need a “trolling” post tag.
Two riders raced through the night on horses commandeered from a nearby plantation, hoof-beats and the laborious breathing of their horses the only sounds. Stars illumined their path, infinite points of light breaking through the pitch that enveloped the world. One of the riders broke the silence, his voice tinged with apprehension:
“What are we to do when we get there Orren? You said you have dealt with the like before, you have a plan?”
“I have dealt with a child of the serpent before, yes.”
“On your own?”
“No. I was but one shield in my contubernium. We were tasked with cleansing a sacrificial chamber used by the red priests of Xarzhin. Not all survived the horror that waited for us below the ziggurat of bone.”
“…We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
“It’s a possibility, yes. That is not part of my plan, however.”
A break in the mountain range they had been following came into view. A dense and unnatural fog poured from the valley. Silence returned as the two men rode to their fates.
They reached their destination as the first rays of the morning light began to glow on the horizon. The horses would go no nearer than several yards from the mouth of the cave. Fearful cries and bulging eyes full of terror signaled to their riders that their service had come to an end.
“We walk from here.” Orren said as he dismounted, armaments in hand.
“My posterior has grown tired of riding anyway.” Berek said with a grin, a grin that gave only the slightest hint of trepidation.
The cave was black like tar, as though all light from the outside was swallowed in it’s inky void. Orren pulled the rune stones from his pouch at the mouth of the cave, they were already glowing much brighter than they had during their encounter with the flayer. He looked at Berek and nodded, then stepped into the darkness. Berek watched for a moment as the light of the stones slowly bobbed and fluttered like a firefly at dusk in Orren’s hands.
“You coming?” the voice of Orren called from the cave.
Berek spit, then unsheathed his sword. He looked back once more in the direction they had come and saw the arc of the sun rise above the land. He nodded and raised his sword at the bringer of the new morning.
“May we meet again.” He said aloud, then turned to begin his descent.
Their way down was winding and steep, their movements slow out of necessity. There was but a single path in the cave, as though burrowed out by some kind of enormous worm. The air was damp…and cold. The deeper they went into the bowels of the earth the colder it became. Vapor could be seen mixing with the omnipresent fog in the glow of the stones when they breathed.
“I’d heard that it was warmer in the belly of the earth, not colder.” Berek whispered, his voice echoing in the dark.
Orren stopped. Then he turned and spoke: “The serpent takes pleasure in the perversion of creation and its laws. Some things that I have past seen, things we will assuredly see this day…they are not meant for our comprehension. There are things ancient in our world; ancient and horrible, conceived before our ancestors first walked. To ponder them is to invite madness. My mind and being is anchored to the Sorra. I trust that alone. Do you have something or someone that might serve to call you back from the precipice of insanity should you find yourself there?”
Berek stood silent for a moment, then grinned in the blue light,“I have the steel in my hand. That is all the aid I require.”
“May it be enough.” replied Orren. He turned, and the two men resumed their descent.
They walked for what seemed like hours, though they had no way of tracking time. Hunger and thirst appeared. Berek began to wonder at their situation, perhaps it would be best to turn around, flee this land. There were kingdoms far to the east that he could sell his martial services to. There are worse fates, like starving to death while shivering in a dark hell like this.
“Ahead…light.” Orren whispered without looking back.
A faint green glow could be seen ahead, almost imperceptible. Orren put the glowing stones back in their pouch, replacing them in his hand with pike and shield. They moved silently in the dark, the light growing brighter with each step. It was not long until they reached the source of the light and the end of their tunnel.
At the mouth of the tunnel was a kind of torch lashed to a pole with crimson and purple strips of fabric. The torch did not burn, but was covered in a substance that gave off it’s own unnatural light. The torch marked the entrance to an enormous cavern that stretched farther than the eye could see. Below a roof of teeth like stalactites lay an enormous body of water. The water was completely covered with a thin sheet of ice that ended a few yards out from the shore where gentle waves gently lapped. Orren and Berek stood struck with awe as they gazed upon the subterranean sea.
This must stretch the entire length of my homeland.” Berek whispered. Orren offered no reply. His attention had been drawn to that which stood a ways down the shore: a tent made of crimson and purple cloth flanked by two more torches and surrounded by bones. Tiny bones. Human bones.
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.
It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.
In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.
Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…
I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.
First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!
As for my own thoughts…
I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.
The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.
I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.
Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.
Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.
“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.
Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.
Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.