Tag Archives: kim newman

The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

star-wars-grand-admiral-thrawn

John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.

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Vampires, Caesar and Fairytales

The infamous book pile grew considerably over Christmas, although not as much as it might have. I’ve been resisting temptation  wherever possible. It’s a struggle.

I dipped into the world of E-Books to pick up Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint. Mr  de Lint is a cult figure in contemporary fantasy but his books are almost impossible to find in the UK.  His work is very close to mainstream literature, with elements of magic and fantasy breaking through and tend to feature young, counter cultural character types which is why I was interested in reading some, as my own stories feature characters of this kind. I was greatly enjoying reading Forests of the Heart until the f@$king awful Microsoft E-Reader expired its trial period and I’m not paying Bill Gates any more money for such ‘premium features’ as being able to show pages two at a time! I will pick up a copy in paperback on Amazon and continue when it arrives.

One of my all time favourite novels is Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil, better known as British novelist Kim Newman. Newman as Yeovil wrote a batch of novels for Games Workshop when it first launched its Black Library publishing imprint under the leadership of David Pringle, the then editor of Interzone. Pringle brought in some talented young writers who produced great novels exploring the Warhammer worlds on which Games Workshop has made its fortune. Drachenfels was my favourite of these, along with the Konrad trilogy by David Ferring. The Warhammer world has a wonderful grittiness that comes from the collision of epic fantasy traditions with a particular kind of British gothicism imported via authors like Newman. Drachenfels captures this brilliantly, and the story of playwright Detlief Sierck’s encounter with the enchanter Drachenfels is one of the greatest works of gothic fantasy I’ve ever read. I was overjoyed then to find an omnibus edition of Drachenfels along with three other Jack Yeovil novels starring the vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, one of Drachenfels most intriguing characters. This was a bit like finding Godfathers 4- 6 on DVD so I’ve been working my way through the omnibus with excitement and glee.

The Works decided to make this a very happy Xmas for me by getting in a brand new stock of schlocky paperbacks to keep me entertained. I’m physically incapable of walking past a discount bookstore  so I’m a regular visitor to The Works. Having picked the graphic novel selection clean in November, the Christmas period brough a new batch of SF and Fantasy novels for a staggering 49p each! I really tried very hard to restrain myself but ended up leaving with four new books – Abarat by Clive Barker (who I met at FantasyCon but have never read), Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx (not SF but interesting none the less) and Assassins Apprentice by Robin Hobb. Hobb in particular comes highly recommended by George R.R. Martin so has been on my must read list for some time. The fourth book is Emperor: Gates of Rome by Conn Igulden, which I’m reading at the moment. Its very good and I can understand why it sold so well, although it has the biggest print of any paperback I’ve ever read so although it looks like a big book is actually quite short.

I’ve also been continuing my travels in online short fiction. Following my review of Cabinet des Fees I spent some time reading the online edition including a story by Catherynne M Valente, a writer I recently discovered I was published alongside in the now dead Muse Apprentice Guild way back in 2003. Serendipity magazine put out its fourth issue featuring my story Circe’s, as well as The Snow Globe by Jeff Haas, a fellow commentor at the Asimov’s forum. This just goes to show what a small online writing world we live in.