July 2017 Archives

Why isn't Conan a Mary Sue?

Because one of his legs is both the same like Dumarest and Dr Who and Roland and the screen Wonder Woman, he faces worthy opponents and perils and victory is often bitter sweet.

I wrote about this at length for Black Gate (still no Hugo, but we now have a World Fantasy Award, by the way). If you dialled back the opposition and, say, had Conan settle down in Tolkien's Shire to protect the hobbits from the fallout from the Ring War, then he'd suddenly be this all-travelled, super-cosmopolitan, uber killing machine; an embarrassing Mary Sue (using the looser definition of the term*). The same goes for most competent characters who protagonate. It's the plot that makes a Mary Sue, not the character.

This is because plot is character...

History: is it about kings, dates, and battles, or the movement of masses and the invisible hand of macroeconomics?

There's something to be said for both theories, but I have a new, countervailing theory about the 21st century (so far); instead othe traditional man on a white horse who leads the revolutionary masses to victory, we've wandered into a continuum dominated by Bond villains.

Consider three four five, taken at random:

Mr X: leader of a chaotic former superpower with far too many nuclear weapons, Mr X got his start in life as an agent of SMERSH the KGB. Part of its economic espionage directorate, tasked with modernizing a creaking command economy in the 1980s, Mr X weathered the collapse of the previous regime and after a turbulent decade of asset stripping rose to lead a faction of billionaire oligarchs, robber barons, and former secret policemen. Mr X trades on his ruthless reputation—he is said to have ordered a defector murdered by means of a radioisotope so rare that the assassination consumed several months' global production—and despite having an official salary on the order of £250,000 he has a private jet with solid gold toilet seats and more palaces than you can shake a stick at. Also nuclear missiles. (Don't forget the nuclear missiles.) Said to be dating the ex-wife of Mr Y. Exit strategy: change the constitution to make himself President-for-Life. Attends military parades on Red Square, natch. Bond Villain Credibility: 10/10

Mr Y: Australian multi-billionaire news magnate. (Currently married to a former supermodel and ex-wife of Mick Jagger.) Owns 80% of the news media in Australia and numerous holdings in the UK and USA, including satellite TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers. Reputedly had Arthur C. Clarke on speed-dial for advice about the future of communications technology. Was the actual no-shit model upon whom Elliot Carver, the villain in "Tomorrow Never Dies", the 18th Bond movie, was based. Exit strategy: he's 86, leave it all to the kids. Bond Villain Credibility: 10/10

Mr Z: South African dot-com era whiz kid who made a fortune before he hit 30. Instead of putting his money into a VC fund he set his sights higher. By 2007 he had a tropical island base complete with boiler-suited minions from which he launched satellites and around which he drove an electric car: has been photographed wearing a tuxedo and stroking a white cat in his launch control center. Currently manufacturing electric cars in bulk, launching absolutely gigantic rockets, and building a hyperloop from Boston to Washington DC. Exit strategy: retire on Mars. Bond Villain Credibility: 9/10 (docked one point for trying too hard—the white cat was a plush toy.)

Mr T: Unspeakably rich New York property speculator and reality TV star, who, possibly with help from Mr X, managed to get himself into the White House. Tweets incessantly at 3AM about the unfairness of it all and how he's being persecuted by the false news media and harassed by crooked politicians while extorting fractional-billion-dollar bribes from middle eastern regimes. Has at least as many nukes as Mr X. Rather than a solid gold toilet seat, he has an entire solid gold penthouse. In fact, he probably has heavy metal poisoning from all that gold. (It would explain a lot.) Bond Villain Credibility: 10/10

Mrs M: After taking a head-shot, M was reconstituted as a cyborg using a dodgy prototype brain implant designed by Sir Clive Sinclair and parachuted into the Home Office to pursue a law-and-order agenda. Following an entirely self-inflicted constitutional crisis and a party leadership challenge in which all the rival candidates stabbed each other in the back, M strode robotically into 10 Downing Street, declared herself to be the Strong and Stable leader the nation needs, and unleashed the world's most chilling facial tic. Exit strategy: (a) Brexit, (b) ... something to do with underpants ... (c) profit? Bond Villain Credibility: 6/10 (down from 8/10 before the 2017 election fiasco.)

I think there's a pattern here: don't you? And, more to the point, I draw one very useful inference from it: if I need to write any more near-future fiction, instead of striving for realism in my fictional political leaders I should just borrow the cheesiest Bond villain not already a member of the G20 or Davos.

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I learned this from Robin Hobb, though I'm pretty sure she didn't realize that she was teaching it to me at the time: there is no extra credit in science fiction. 

By which I mean, one of the things that I do, that other writers do, that people in various other fields probably do too (though I don't have direct experience of that) is that we make extra work for ourselves because of... I don't know, acculturation probably that if we JUST WORK HARDER and are teacher's pets and volunteer for extra labor that somehow we'll get better outcomes. This is superstition, really--because publishing is an enormously unpredictable and random business where quality is not always rewarded, and a lot of things can go wrong. And like anybody who makes their living off a capricious and dangerous environment (actors, fishermen) writers are prone to superstitions as a means of expressing agency in situations where we're honestly pretty helpless. (Nobody controls the hive-mind of the readership. Oh, if only we did.)

Now, by extra credit, please note that I don't mean the things that I consider part of baseline professionalism in a writer: turning in a manuscript that is as clean and artistically accomplished as possible, as expediently as possible, and working with your editor to polish and promote the resulting book. What I mean is raising those bars to unsupportable levels, such as: "I will turn in a completely clean manuscript so that the copyeditor has nothing to do!" and "I have a series of simple edits here, which I will resolve be rewriting the entire book, because then my editor will be more impressed with me."

Spoiler: The copyeditor will have stuff to do, because part of her job is making sure that if you break house style you're doing it on purpose. Also, your editor will probably be a little nonplussed, and possibly sneak a pull out of the bottle of Scotch in her bottom drawer, because you've just made a lot more work for her.

Other manifestations include: "I must write forty guest blog posts today!" and "I must write at least twenty pages every single day to validate my carbon footprint!"

(That latter one is the one I tend to fall prey to, for the record.)

I see it a lot among women writers especially, probably because we feel like we constantly have to validate our right to be in a space that is only intermittently welcoming, but it's certainly not a gender-specific problem. 

And the thing is... it just isn't so. You don't have to do a pile of extra credit work. It doesn't help, and might in fact be detrimental--to your health, your sanity, and eventually your career. It's possible to out-produce your readership's appetite; it's possible to out-produce the publishing slots available to you; it's possible to fuss yourself so much over tiny details that don't actually matter that you add years to your production schedule and die broke in a gutter, or talk yourself out of finishing the book entirely.

They're never perfect. They're just as good as you can get them, in the limited time available, and then they're done and you learned something and the next one can be better, you hope.

And nobody's going to bump your 4.0 up to a 4.2 because you did a bunch of homework you didn't actually need to do to get the finished product as good as possible, and also out the door.

I am taking an (unasked-for) vacation from blogging to attend the bed of a close, elderly, family member who is dying. This is not unexpected, but death doesn't generally happen on a schedule and I've no way of knowing whether it is hours or days away at this point: so life for the rest of us is, perforce, on hold—and so are my blog updates.

(There may be some appearances, probably unheralded, by guest bloggers over the weeks ahead. Watch this space.)

The Delirium Brief

Today (Tuesday) is the official publication date for The Delirium Brief in North America. As of this book, the Laundry Files are moving to Tor from Ace, who published the series from books 3-7. Because it has a different publisher in the UK (Orbit), The Delirium Brief won't officially be out until Thursday—but I gather it's already on sale in many branches of Waterstones.

First week sales figures are really important to authors these days, much like first weekend audience figures for a movie. It'll eventually get a price drop (and a low cost paperback edition), but if you want to read it, you'd be doing me a favour if you bought it now rather than later. Also? Reader reviews on Amazon really help—the more, the better. Authors these days are expected to do a bunch of their own marketing, and if the number of reader reviews on Amazon passes a critical threshold (fifty is the number I've heard) then they're more amenable to promotional book-of-the-month deals and future discounts.

If you want to order a signed copy, read this. Oh, and there are still tickets to the launch reading/signing at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh on the evening of Wednesday 12th.

Frequently asked questions (below the fold):

So, the XPrize folks and ANA just announced a competition for submissions to an anthology of short stories, about the experience of passengers aboard a flight that mysteriously finds itself time-warped 20 years into the future. From the blurb:

Your flight has been mysteriously transported 20 years into the future. How could this happen? Wait, that's not important. Take a deep breath. Look around. Without a doubt, the world has changed. What new technologies and innovations have reshaped the way we live?

XPRIZE, ANA and the world's top science fiction storytellers are embarking on a journey to 2037, envisioning a world transformed by exponential technologies and a global community of innovators. We'd like for you to join us.

Seat 14C is, at its core, an earnest endeavor into our possible future. We invite storytellers from around the world to submit their visions of 2037, as told from a passenger aboard ANA Flight #008.

Your short story is a first-person account of the passenger seated in 14C aboard ANA Flight #008. What does this person experience as they arrive in 2037 and explore a changed world? How has emerging (or not-yet-invented) technology altered society for the better, and how does your character discover and interact with this technology?

We are hopeful for our future, and we ask that your story creatively weaves technology and culture, envisioning an optimistic and exciting future for mankind.

Disclaimer: when I was invited to contribute to the anthology I had to say "no" because I was up to my eyeballs in work-related rabid ferrets (read: deadlines). I'm still waaaay too busy to emit a short story, largely because I have recently discovered to my horror that my ability to write works of fiction less than 20,000 words long has atrophied due to lack of use.

However, if I was going to write an entry to this competition, it might read something like this.

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