Tag Archives: Fantasy

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THE GOLEM AND THE DJINNI – a masterpiece of fantasy literature

Unforgettable images shimmer from the pages of The Golem and the Djinni. A palace of glass and gold glittering in the Syrian desert. The bustle and heartbeat of New York in 1899, populated with a cast of intriguing characters, two of them creatures of magic. Chava is a golem crafted by a rogue rabbi, her intended master dead and buried at sea, she is free to do as she wills. Ahmad is a djinni, a spirit of fire and of the desert, trapped in human form by a bracelet of iron. Both must confront the same question; what is the price of freedom when you have been created only to serve the will of others? Around this theme Helene Wecker’s debut novel crafts an unforgettable fantasy story. The Golem and the Djinni takes us deep in to the immigrant experience of 19th century America, and the contrasting cultures of Judaism and Islam that meet there. But the grand themes never overwhelm the human story that Wecker weaves from the lives of two quite inhuman characters. Comparisons with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell come easily, but Weckers novel achieves a depth of meaning and human emotion that Clarke’s work never truly touched. The Golem and the Djinni is a masterpiece of fantasy literature that readers will discover with joy for many years to come.

Originally published in SFX magazine.

All our genres be broken

Take a look at this marvellous think piece by Gareth L Powell on the problems with defining science fiction by its Golden Age origins.

(I should add that the Golden Age isn’t the origin of science fiction any more than McDonalds was the origin of the burger. It’s just the moment it got reduced in to a commodity.)

I’m a far more severe critic of the genre than Mr Powell. If the twitching body of the SF genre was in the boot of my Cadillac begging for one more chance at life, I’d put it out of its misery and give it an unmarked grave in the desert. Most of what was most interesting about science fiction happened before the term was coined, and most of what was most of interesting since has been desperately trying to escape the choke hold the label has over imaginative literature.

But fantasy is no better. Fantasy is one of the most basic functions of human psychology. The debate about the the value of fantasy, or the lack of value, has raged across philosophy and literature. The novel, beginning with Don Quixote and running to the present day, is a form implicitly concerned with the interrelation of fantasy and reality. And from this the fantasy genre has coagulated as a faux medieval setting and a pulp adventure quest story. Or a way of writing historical fiction that doesn’t require researching history.

Horror may be the worst of all. I enjoy reading some horror novels and there’s a renaissance of interesting writing in the genre coming up this year. But none of it is remotely horrific. Much of it is off putting, some of it repugnant. But mostly for the wrong reasons. I don’t find unexpected interruptions of reality by the weird at all scary. In fact, I kind of enjoy them. I’d love to find a coven of occultists in my home town. Those are the kind of people I’d like to go for a drink with.

The three central genres of imaginative fiction are broken. They’re an albatross around the neck of writers naturally drawn to the imagination who find themselves shoved in to one or other of these outmoded marketing categories. Let’s be shot of them, and find better ways to shape the wonders of the imagination for today’s generation of readers.

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London Gothic

Mystery is the doorway to fantasy. Dark forests, far away galaxies, roads that wind into the distance: any space that allows our imagination to play without the interference of mundane reality can be a portal. And there are few places more expectant with mystery than cities. Every road, building and doorway is a new unknown. So it’s no surprise that writers of fantasy find endless inspiration in cities, and in no city more than London.

The current trend for recasting London through the prism of fantasy metaphors began, arguably, with Neil Gaiman’s television series (and later novel) Neverwhere. Gaiman imagines a fantasy underworld beneath the mundane reality of London, built around the names of stops on the tube map. Blackfriars, Angel Islington and Old Bailey become characters in the underworld. It’s the kind of simple, beautiful idea Gaiman has a knack for; the sort you feel you might have thought of just a moment before he told them to you.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

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SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please

“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”

There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.

The quote at the head of this post was left by my friend Jim Worrad on a Facebook thread sparked by the idea that that Ursula Le Guin would not be published as a debut author today. Jim’s quote really sums up what I’ve felt festering inside for the last few days since publishing my latest Weird Things column on Le Guin’s new selected stories The Real and the Unreal. Thinking about Le Guin’s writing I really found myself wondering why there are so few writers in the fantasy genre producing work of the kind of quality – creatively, intellectually, technically – that Le Guin has produced throughout her career.

Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.

I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.

Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.

SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?

SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.

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The battle for geek culture

As a fan of fantasy fiction, it’s been entertaining watching mainstream cultural critics’ baffled responses to Game of Thrones, which has surprised many by becoming the biggest show on TV this year. Gina Bellafante of the New York Times was among the first to come a cropper when she made the rash statement that no woman could ever enjoy the show, only to find herself hounded across the internet by legions of female fantasy fans.

Read more @ Guardian books.

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Fantasy must be a struggle with life

The more experienced I become as a writer, the more I realise I was closer to the soul of the art when I started out than after a decade and some lose change years studying its craft. Jonathan Franzen is a writer I discovered through The Corrections some time in the last year or so. In his recent lecture reprinted in The Guardian, Franzen talks about the relationship between fiction and autobiography, by way of Kafka.

Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.

When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.

Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn / delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.

The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy. Star, my latest short story upcoming in Universe magazine in June, is an alternative history of a fascist Britain, and also a memoir of the attempt to escape what seemed an overwhelmingly authoritarian educational system. My Lovesick Zombie Boyband is about a teenage girl with powers of necromancy, and also about having my heart crushed when I was eighteen. Circe’s Bar and Grill is a contemporary retelling of the Odysseus myth, and also my experience of serving rich people in restaurants. Momentum is an complete invention, except I do have boxes of scrawled notes from departed relatives hidden under my bed and I often wonder what they mean.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s idea of autobiography and the fictive dream, I realised how distinctly biography and fantasy, far from being conflicting urges, have actually been aspects of the same urge for me. I can steal Franzen’s words to describe that urge as to ‘create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning’. It’s in the collision of the real and the fantastic that the vividness and and meaning of the dream arise.

Earlier in the same section of the lecture Franzen says:

My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.

Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net’. It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spinds out remarkable idea…if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.

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Can fantasy tell the truth?

There is nothing wrong with escaping reality now and again. Like a well brewed ale, or a good malt whisky, a finely crafted escapist fantasy can be a thing of joy and beauty. But while the occasional tipple can be a good thing, most of us recognise that a bottle of Jameson’s a night is unhealthy for body, mind and soul.

An unfiltered diet of escapist fantasy blockbusters can be similarly unhealthy. As master anti-fantasist M John Harrison expresses it in his essay The Profession of Science Fiction while discussing the appeal of fantasy to young children terrified by adult life, “Many fantasy and SF readers are living out a prolonged childhood in which they retain that terror and erect – in collusion with professional writers who themselves often began as teenage daydreamers – powerful defences against it.”

Read more in The Guardian

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Reality is for people who can’t handle Science Fiction

It’s all too easy to dismiss science fiction and fantasy stories as escapist nonsense. But there’s ultimately something despairing about the charge of running away most readers of these genres encounter at some point. It tends to come from an authority figure of some kind – a teacher, a boss, a parent. It is often well intended. But even as they make the accusation, you can hear a part of them whispering quietly, “I want to escape! I want to imagine! I want to dream!” Unfortunately they’ve forgotten how, and reality is too important to escape from – even for a moment.

Read more on The Guardian website

Why can’t the BBC grow up about fantasy?

Grit your teeth. Now pull your lips back into the widest grin you can manage, tense your entire body and, starting in your chest and moving through your throat up into your nasal cavity, generate a high-pitched “squeeeeeeeeeee” while waving you hands frantically on either side of your face, Broadway-style. There, you’ve just had a fangasm.

Read the full article on Guardian Unlimited