Recently in Writing Category

Filmmaker and comic author Hugh Hancock here again. Charlie's currently locked in his study babbling over blasphemous and forbidden tomes, so whilst we attempt to hack down the door with a fireaxe and get counselling for the guy to whom Charlie explained the hidden meaning of the Nightmare Stacks, I'm here with another blog post.

In the last couple of posts I've made over here (thanks as always to OGH for the invitation), I've been making the point that, both through necessity and lucky happenstance, the themes and subtext of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos are still very workable in today's world. In fact, they've acquired a lot of resonance thanks to advances in technology and society that run parallel to some of their main themes.

But still, the Cthulhu Mythos' core squamous, eldrich concepts were created just under 100 years ago at this point. They reflect the concerns of the time, like the sudden discovery that the universe is mind-blowingly, terrifyingly huge. And they have a few... issues for modern readers, like inbuilt xenophobia.

So what would a Cthulhu Mythos-equivalent for today, expressing the zeitgeist terrors of 2015 society, look like?

Bloody terrifying, that's what.

Because unlike Lovecraft, in 2015 we have plenty of experience with actual gigantic, inhuman entities with agendas entirely orthogonal to the safety and security of the human race.

My Dark Age adventure, Shieldwall: Barbarians! is Young Adult, meaning, in this case, Sharpe or Conan but without the shagging, and with slightly more moral compass - really you can read it as being "in the tradition of" Harold Lamb and the Pulpmeisters of Yore and ignore the YA tag. When I wrote it, I had in my head "Robert E Howard does Rosemary Sutcliff (but not that way (though they would have made a lovely couple))".

It's also an old-school young officer story, albeit with a barbarian prince as the protagonist, and it's set in the Dark Ages during Attila's invasion of Europe. 

All this seemed like a good idea at the time.

So I have been defending Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy (Traditional Fantasy for short), and in the process growing a thicker skin.

We've done "Piss off, I enjoy this stuff" and why I think it needs saying. The latter  part of that - OMG the Bad People are Beating on the Pixy Folk -- was perhaps a little controversial. However, it's not everyday one gets compared not just to the "puppies"* but also to the "gators"**!

*Black Gate Magazine, where I blog, of course turned down a puppy nomination. It shouldn't take much empathy to imagine how that felt, and how easy it would have been for us to collectively shrug and plaster our stuff with "Hugo Nominated" - this isn't just about getting a pretty badge, it's about how our hard-won careers shape out.

** As for the "gators" comparison; I'd put in some time meditating on my male self-entitlement except I'm too busy keeping house for my more dynamic wife, facilitating my daughter's interest in science and astronomy, and bringing up my son to, among other things, treat people as people rather than "other" them because they have a different perspective.

My next post, "The walls are high, but the sandbox is lovely", being more about literature, led to an interesting discussion with some bemoaning of the way that Traditional Fantasy still seems so dominant (is it dominant?)

Elderly Cynic made a very perceptive comment:

Actually, the modern stories are NOT built on European history, so
much as the tradition of romantic fables ('Arthurian'), and that is
very much a Western European phenomenon.

Charlie said I would talk about self publishing. He also mentioned something about "shameless plugging". So, let me also tell you about writing a metric tonne of franchise fiction, my really very rapid writing process, and why I self published my book Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. I promise it won't be all sales pitch, except for the very last paragraph.

This time last year, I was recovering from having written four short (40K words; about the length of an old 1970s Lin Carter paperback ) franchise tie-in novels at a rate of roughly one every four months. Since each novel had to fit the setting, one of those months went on research.

These days, franchise novels, that is novels "tying in" to an existing story world, typically belonging to a video game, aren't disposable trash (if they ever were).

They're part of both the franchise's brand and that of the author, which is another way of saying that reputations ride on their quality. Not just reputations; nobody sane becomes a writer or an editor unless they like getting books right - there's no point in being (comparatively) skint and if you're not going to have fun!

Many, many, good writers mix franchise with original fiction. Two examples you might have missed are: Paul S Kemp, Star Wars fablemeister who also writes the exquisite Egil & Nix books  (which I will get to in part 3 of my Defence posts); and Howard Andrew Jones who writes Pathfinder adventures, but is responsible for the amazing Desert of Souls, basically Arabian Nights fan fiction and a good example of non-western Fantasy.

There are good reasons for writing for hire.

Over on Black Gate Magazine, I've just reviewed some Osprey "Dark" and "Adventures" books - fictional military history texts from a publisher that usually deals in facts. Two are squarely Traditional Fantasy; one about the mythical wars of Atlantis, the other about Orc warfare , complete with all the tropes: goblins, dwarves, trolls, dark lords and minions.... it could almost be a guide to one aspect of the Oglaf mileu...

And did I mention Oglaf (really very NSFW)? That um... raunchy... webcomic is a romp through a Dungeons and Dragons-esqu world, and derives its humour not from sending up the genre, but from the situations it creates.

Then there's Dungeons and Dragons itself, and a zillion tabletop and screen games that scratch the same itch. Nobody goes, "OMG. 'Mage' Knight. How clichéd!" They're too busy playing. Nor, for that matter, did anybody stop to complain when Terry Pratchett pretty much segued from taking the piss out of what I've been calling Traditional Fantasy, to using it as his sandbox.

Because Traditional Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval Fantasy is a great sandbox. Let me put on my (very minor compared to our godlike host) writer hat... (Clunk! Yes, it is a helmet)... there. OK, here's how I see it...

Charlie blindsided me by promising I'd talk about German Longsword. That's like saying, "He'll talk about his Blues band." 

It's just too big a topic!

So let me turn the tables and tell you about how swords led to me meeting Charlie, and how both Charlie and swords led to me becoming a professional author. The story is not what you'd think.

Back when the world was young, a large Goth (long hair and black clothes, rather than long hair, pointy helmet and lamellar as per Shieldwall: Barbarians!) threw me through a pile of chairs.

As he helped me up, I realised he'd cured the nagging shoulder pain I'd been suffering.

That miracle cure was the least of the many good things that stemmed from that moment. (Though if we'd turned it into an alternative therapy, perhaps we'd both be rich! Stand here madam. Try to relax while Igor lovingly hurls you through our stack of handcrafted homeopathic crystal chairs arranged on a bed of natural herbs according to a traditional feng shui pattern...)

My name is M Harold Page and I recently sold a short story with a dragon in it.

As I wrote the story, I could hear the voices of snarky snobbery in the back of my head:

"Oh look, LOL, you could reduce all Fantasy maps to a blotchy version of Europe but swap in Orks for Mongols.... OMG another book about E'lves and D'warves... (chortle) Historical fiction for authors too lazy to do research."

And:

"Sigh. Isn't it time to explore other cultures?"

Yes it's pretty easy to snark at -- call it - Traditional Fantasy, and also to give it a political kicking critique. It is, after all, a genre in which everything is possible, and yet where it usually delivers European-style secondary worlds and archetypes.

I think the snarks and critiques rather miss the point. However that's for a different blog post. Instead let's consider the short defence of Traditional Fantasy, which is the starkly simple...

Not too long ago, someone in the twittersphere asked, "Whatever happened to psi? It used to be all the rage in science fiction."

The answer, essentially, was that John Campbell died and nobody believes in that crap any more. And anyway, it's fantasy.

Now here's the thing. If you accept Clarke's Third Law, which boils down in the common wisdom to "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," you kind of have to ask, "Do we believe psi is crap because it really is crap, or do we just not have the technology to detect or manipulate it?"

I'm just barely old enough that it's a miracle I survived toddlerhood, having come into existence in the era of child-strangling continuously-looped window-blind cords and child-trepanning lawn darts, guaranteed to come down point first and ever-so-much faster than they went up. This is relevant because it means that when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and making the first serious, striving steps toward becoming a published SFF writer, the genre discourse was all about the singularity.

A lot of bad advice gets handed out to aspiring writers. One of the crappier pieces that I received at that time was the assurance that I must address the concept of the rapture of the nerds in every science fiction story, to be taken at all seriously. That uploaded brains were where it was at, and if we didn't talk about that, we weren't talking about the Real Futuristic Future™.

It was also at about that time that our esteemed host, Mr Stross, had just published his breakout story "Lobsters," which deals--among other things--with just the problem of uploading brains. And I read that story and was blown away... but I also had the privilege of hearing Charlie speak on the topic of the singularity, either at Readercon in 2002 or at TorCon in 2003--possibly both, looking back--and he said something that made much more sense to me than the idea of one major catastrophic event as singularity, after which would be Humanity v. 2.0 and nothing old would matter anymore.

Charlie presented the idea that history was a series of one-way gates; that every time we passed through one, it was a technological singularity from which there was no turning back. It was just that we adapted to these changes, and considered them commonplace: that the post-human future looked pretty human once you were in it.

At the same time, I had been noodling with some ideas of my own regarding uploaded minds or created artificial intelligences. Some of these appeared in Hammered and the associated novels; some have appeared in Dust and its associated novels.

It troubled me that this idea of a post-human future was so western, so industrial, and so absolutist. I admit to a kind of existentialist bent in my personal philosophy--I call myself an agnostic because I'm not capable of summoning the belief in my own infallibility it would take to declare myself an atheist (I could be wrong! There could be something that looks, from the outside, like a god!)--and I'm exquisitely aware that value judgments are externally exposed and culturally determined.

And the fact that the future is not equally distributed, to paraphrase Bruce Sterling, does not make the lives of the people who still live ten or twenty of fifty years ago--technologically speaking--of less value than the lives of those who--technologically speaking--are living five or ten years ahead of me. (Every time I go abroad, I am reminded of how primitive so much American infrastructure is. Why does the bus stop by my house not tell me when the next bus is arriving? Why do I need to take my credit card out of my wallet to buy groceries?)

Geoff Ryman addresses a lot of these issues brilliantly in his novel Air, set in a future Cambodia. I also think Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death--while not a singularity novel, per se--makes an interesting series of counterpoints to the idea of "a" singularity. It's set in a future Sudan, and the base cultural assumption it makes are very different from those we're accustomed to seeing in western SF.

So I leave the reading of these novels as an exercise to the class, and pass on discussing my suite of issues with the Western-Civ-Centric singularity for now.

Because what I want to talk about today is another problem I have with the singularity as monolithic event. When I first started talking about it online, in 2006 or so, I identified what I was doing as a feminist critique (and to be specific here, I am talking about the uploaded-brain rapture-of-the-nerds singularity, not the augmented-meat/skinned reality brand of singularity. We have so many, these days. It makes one jealous of having just a nice neat three or five or seven branches of Urban Fantasy to fight over and lump-or-split texts into.). At the time, I wrote:

When I first moved to Las Vegas, I used to burn my mouth a lot when I wasn't thinking carefully about what I was drinking, because the air is so dry that you often can't see the steam rising from a cup of tea. After a while, I learned to hesitate, and check the temperature of the air over the fluid with my lip. This isn't something I ever decided to do. Rather, my autonomous systems figured it out for themselves. Because they're smarter than you think they are.

The meat does a lot of our thinking, in other words, when the more advanced electrical systems are busy. An MIT a-life researcher who I quoted in Hammered holds the unpopular perspective that a good deal of our thinking (our consciousness, our sentience) is emotional rather than rational. Chemical, if you will, rather than electrical.

Sarah Monette pointed out at Boskone (2006) that the idea of the singularity is at its heart a denial of the body, and it occurred to me that that could be read, from a feminist perspective, two ways. One, that sex becomes irrelevant, or--and here's the bit I twigged on--that if you squint just right, what you're left with is a very Augustinian refutation of the flesh. In this way, Stross's notorious turn of phrase, the rapture of the geeks, is exactly right. The weak/evil/flawed/excoriated flesh is scoured away, and what is left is divine, improved, elevated, incomprehensible.

Transcendent, if I may.

There's a bunch of talk about how SF has to address the idea of a singularity to be relevant, which to me is bullshit. Augmented intelligence, techshock, sure--but we've been dealing with that as a genre for the last hundred years. Which is why I like Charlie's one-way-gates (the Strossian singularity) as a more useful idea than the Vingean posthuman singularity. (I'm pretty freaking posthuman to a sixth-century Northman, yanno?)

Basically, it's a lovely idea, and there's been a lot of very good SF written about it, but I think allowing this idea of posthumanity to become The Defining Dialogue of "serious" SF is a mistake. (Of course, I'm not much for SF as predictive--we keep missing the big ones, after all, so I don't see why that should change.)

But then, there's this drive to define SF as Apollonian, in contrast to the purported Dionysian bent of modern fantasy, and to thus elevate SF, and I think is some ways that's one element of the whole posthuman thing. Because a singularity is nicely Apollonian. Augustinian. Anti-feminist, if you accept the idea that women's fiction tends to be more concerned with relationship and the negotiation of life and that women are more concerned with the messy bits of being made of meat.

Boy games are still privileged over girl games, in other words. Even when the games are intellectual.

Of course, I don't for half a second think that the male writers playing posthuman games are intentionally setting out to devalue "female" (please note the scare quotes) values or perspectives. I know Peter Watts and Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow and so on, and a less gender-bigoted bunch of guys would be hard to find. (Actually, one of the things I really like about Cory Doctorow, and a symptom I suspect of how giant and shiny his brain really is, is that he can manipulate "masculine" and "feminine" communication styles with equal facility.) What I'm saying is that if you come at this thing from the right angle, it looks surprisingly like the old logic-trumps-emotion, Apollo-trumps-Dionysius, male-trumps-female, SF-trumps-Fantasy, mind-trumps-meat "moral" argument.

This idea of the meat-puppet as somehow different from and inferior to the mind, rather than the two being an integrated and seamless whole: it's so pervasive in our culture that I think we forget to question it... but there are cultures that could not conceive of the mind without the body. Which is what I mean when I say that the singularity in its Rapture of the Geeks form is Augustinian... but then again, what if it's not a case of the rancid flesh and the incorruptible soul? What if it's a package deal?

It doesn't fit our Western cultural preconceptions, of course. But then, our current Western cultural preconceptions have deep roots in Thomas a Beckett's stinky hair shirt and Calvinist doctrine, the mortification of the flesh for the glorification of the soul.

And that's interesting to think about, from a perspective of regarding unquestioned assumptions.

I still think what I wrote then is broadly true, though I've refined my perspectives somewhat, and started tying it more closely into some of my broad, unified theories of what's afoot in speculative fiction.

The more research I do into human neurology--and writing Dust and the other two Jacob's Ladder books required more about brains than I ever wanted to know--the more convinced I become that we, human we, are not divorceable from our meat. In one of the Jenny Casey books, I have a artificial intelligence researcher protest to her creation that he's nothing but piezoelectrical patterns in crystal; he retorts that she is, likewise, piezoelectrical patterns in meat. And while that remains true... the shape of the circuitry, and the neurochemical baths that wash it, have a hell of a lot of influence over who we are. So I've been playing more extensively with this idea of what the actual practical results would be, if we did have the technology to "upload" a mind, or copy it in some fashion. And possibly download it into another brain.

How does this affect identity? Does identity even exist under those circumstances?

Where's your soul now, Augustus? The machine shapes the ghost as surely--probably even more strongly, given current research into neuroplasticity--as the ghost shapes the machine. Meat hacks mind and mind hacks meat: they are codependent, and cannot exist without each other in any functional form.

They are not, in fact, two separate things. Rather, one is an emergent property of the other.

And that fascinates me. Far, far more than beaming my brain across space into a new body for easy lightspeed travel.

There's a lot of effort expended on identifying The Next Big Thing in science fiction, and arguing about what it should be, and trying to make each of the cresting wavelets into the next big sweeping change. Biotech was supposed to be The Next Cyberpunk; so was quantum physics; likewise the singularity.

Which is why, I think, I felt as an arriving writer that it was being stuffed down my throat.

But Next Big Things, like minds, like singularities, are emergent properties. I don't think they can be prescribed--only identified once they are inevitable.

And I think while we've all been trying to declare one, one has shown up.

Because a thing I notice about "my" generation of science fiction and fantasy writers is that we are different in one particular significant manner from the generations before us, and I think that particular difference contributes to this lack of a unifying Next Big Thing.

The coming revolution in the English-language genre is here. And it's this: we're diverse. I've taken to calling it the Rainbow Age of science fiction, because the one thing I notice about the writers in my cohort is that we are multicolored, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic. We come from a wide range of class and religious backgrounds and life experiences. We do not conform neatly to gender binaries or established sexual identities. You cannot assume that we are male, or heterosexual, or white, or American or English or Canadian, or of protestant or Jewish background, or that we are probably professional or middle class.

The thing--the only thing--we have in common is that we are science fiction and fantasy fans.

And certainly diversity is not new to science fiction fandom, but this mass and breadth of diversity is. This sheer number of intelligent, vocal people who come from outside fandom's established demographics means that the genre club scene is suddenly, vividly alive. Fusion is happening. Creation is underway right here.

It's causing some readjustments of assumptions and it's pushing some people's comfort zones.

And I think that's glorious. I think it's healthy. I think it's blowing the boundaries of the genre wide open, throwing the windows wide, getting the dust off, and leading to some of the most creative and interesting work I've read in years. I think this diversity and multi-threadedness and the power of these arguments is exactly what science fiction needs to make it a vital and enduring and relevant literature for another fifty years.

Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

Charlie is traveling for a couple of days so I'm dropping by for a quick post. Remember me from last April? Dracula-movie guy? Vaguely familiar?

Anyway, I wanted to kick around a few ideas about ebooks; authors (and some real people) have been talking this subject to death for years--decades, even--so what's new to say?

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I've been surprised by the way sales are running on Amazon.com. It's a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it's not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked Amazon.com's Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

I realize this isn't anything like a complete picture of sales trends, but it is interesting in the same way Netflix is moving away from mailing DVDs. Amazon.com is so well positioned to sell digital files that one glance at their list of Contemporary Fantasy bestsellers shows one unsurprising fact: It's not dominated by books put out by New York publishers.

As I write this, the top three books are in the "Vampire for Hire" series, which are self-published, as are seven of the top ten. Amazon.com's digital customers appear to be moving toward self-published books and away from professionally-published ones.

What does that mean for the future? Well, we're no strangers to love. You know the rules and so do I. A full commitment's what I'm thinking of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling. Gotta make you understand.

Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry. Never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

We've known each other for so long. Your heart's been aching but, you're too shy to say it...

Okay, yeah, that was a rickroll. Hopefully, you laughed, which is more than you would have gotten out of my predictions of the future. The truth is, I don't know if anyone is really capable of calling the score on this one. Yeah the "book stink" people (the folks who are always talking about the way books smell) are the minority most of us expected, and ebook sales are growing, but the picture is more complex than that. Ebooks seem to be hitting mass market originals (like my books) much harder than hardbacks and trade-sized paperbacks, but how much more of a bite can they take? What happened to windowing? If ebook readers buy even more self-published books, will Amazon.com be less of a problem for brick-and-mortar indie stores? And what about those readers who really make a book into a mega-hit, the casual, two-book-a-year, everyone-else-has-read-DaVinci-Code-so-I-should-too people?

It's fascinating (if slightly painful) and I'm curious to see if the market finds an equilibrium soon. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling.

ObPlug: Here's a couple of links for those curious about my books: New book, which Charlie has very kindly blurbed | Sample chapter | Entire series.

Thanks for reading.

In comments on previous posts I've mentioned that I have never considered myself a part of fandom. I haven't been avoiding fans, and I don't have any aversion to them (as far as I can tell so far). It's just that every time I would see a flyer advertising a convention, there would be that admission fee. I don't doubt the event is worth sixty dollars or whatever, but that doesn't mean I was prepared to part with so much cash. I imagine a BMW is worth the price, but the cost puts it out of reach.

Anyway, this meant that, as I ventured onto the internet, I stumbled upon a whole bunch of writers and readers who already knew each other, and they seemed to be having these ongoing conversations.

But there was one conversation I kept seeing that I'd been exposed to before: "Science fiction readers are smarter than fantasy readers, because, you know, science."

Here's how I came across it: Seattle used to have a big annual event called NW Bookfest. It's been defunct for a few years now, but it used to place over a chilly weekend, numerous authors of every type were invited to be interviewed or to appear on panels, and the place was filled with publishers and booksellers from all over the region.

I loved it, even if they typically only had one genre panel each day (if I was lucky). One year I dropped over a thousand dollars on books and I always went home with a T-shirt.

Anyway, there was a single sf/f panel taking place one day and it was pretty crowded. I managed to find a spot in the middle row. I'm not going to mention any authors by name (in consideration of point 5 of the moderation policy, just in case) but one of the authors began talking about how much he loved science fiction, and how much he hated fantasy.

He was kinda nasty about it, too. He thought wizards and the like were lame because they were trapped on one planet. He'd tried to write fantasy but was so annoyed with it he wanted to throw the wizard into a sun. And so on.

While he complained, I heard a woman behind me say quite clearly "I don't even know why they're shelved together." Immediately I thought Oh my god, I'm trapped in the middle of them! Don't turn around or draw their attention! I wasn't even completely sure who they were but I knew they weren't friendly to me or my kind.

Eventually the author really got down to it. He told the audience that he read science fiction because he wanted to live in those futuristic worlds, with the robots and space ships and so on. Not only did he not want to live in a pre-industrial agricultural setting, but he explained that he'd already tried it. He'd lived on a farm with no modern conveniences, and it was really, really hard work.

What fools these fantasy readers were for wanting to live in an environment like that!

Now, maybe it's a common fandom experience to be sitting in the audience at a panel thinking WTF is this dude going on about? I wouldn't know. But I know I was looking at him like he had decided to impress everyone by farting out soap bubbles.

Hey, if someone wants to create a Star Trek future where I get a holodeck and replicator corned beef hash for breakfast every day, I'm there. See a Martian sunrise? Love to. Robots that will keep house? I'll take two. But when I pick up a novel to read, it's usually a mystery or a fantasy.

We all know it's common for readers of adventure fiction to imagine yourself in the story. (At least I think it's common; if I'm a one-of-a-kind freak don't tell me.) I would have been quite happy to accept a teaching position at Hogwarts. Hell, I'd go there as a Muggle to teach Muggle Studies as long as I was allowed to pack a pair of Desert Eagles under my robes (First lesson: nuclear weapons and why wizarding kind should stop kidding themselves about "their rightful place").

Sometimes, when I'm reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I burn with the desire to leap into the pages and have a Very Serious Talk with the characters about what they ought to be doing (then leap out again because... yikes.) A pleasant tour of post-Sauron Middle Earth would be cool and Silver Age DC universe would make for a fun jaunt.

And as much fun as it would be to fly like Superman or ride a giant eagle, would I, myself, move to those places? Live there? Hell no. I no more want to start a farm in the Shire than I want to dress like a bat and try to terrify the criminals of downtown Seattle.

And don't forget all those mysteries I read. Does Mr. Panelist think I read police procedurals because I hear a little voice inside whispering subject header above? Or that I read detective novels because I want to go out of my house to talk to three dozen people, some of whom think I'm an interfering sleaze ball? Please. I don't like to ask my waiter if the drinks come with free refills; you know I won't be prying into some senator's extra-marital affair.

My point here is that nearly everyone in the whole world would like to live in an advanced techno-utopia. Just because you like to read about them too doesn't mean you're a clear-eyed rationalist living amongst herds of sheeple. It means you're interested in science fiction, period. It doesn't make you stand out as a lonely supporter of human progress and it's not a marker of moral virtue. Which isn't to say that you're not a perfectly wonderful person; I'm sure you are! But it's not the books you read that make you wonderful.

And just because I'm reading a mystery novel doesn't mean I'm hoping to get into a gun fight in a grimy alley. It's a story I enjoy, not a life I wish I were living.

In my next post I'm going to talk about diagnosing my mental illnesses (over the internet) based on nothing but my positive response to a book.

I thought I'd lead off here by talking about something I occasionally bring up on my own blog: Thrillers.

I grew up reading fantasy, thanks to my older sister. Sure, I dabbled in horror and science fiction, but most of the books on my shelves were about dudes with swords taking a long trip. And even though I was completely unconnected with fandom, I managed to pick up a few genre-specific terms anyway, and while I'm sure I don't have to explain "high fantasy" and "low fantasy" to readers here, I'll skim over them for completeness' sake.

High Fantasy: fictional settings, kings, empires, armies, generals, palace wizards, GvE, big magic, monsters and non-human species are commonplace parts of the setting, plots with an epic scope.

Low Fantasy: real/historical settings, common citizens as characters--especially criminals, shopkeepers, beggars and police, small amounts of magic (usually), monsters or non-human species regarded as unusual elements in the setting if they exist at all, plots that may include the fate of the world (just like high fantasy) but which have a much smaller scope.

Now, fantasy novels aren't lag bolts. They're works of art (we can argue whether they're good or bad art, but stories = art), so these aren't strict categories. A book can be comfortably placed in "high fantasy" without checking every box on the list. I say this to forestall discussions of edge cases and "Well, what about [X]?" where [X] is a book that matches every low fantasy indicator except that it has a prince in it or something. Pointing out works of art don't neatly fall into a category doesn't refute the category or demonstrate that the category isn't useful. These are descriptive labels, and we don't have to be strict about them.

Back to thrillers: Wikipedia is nice enough to provide a list of subgenres, but for my own purposes I split them into high thrillers and low thrillers.

A high thriller concerns people in power--not kings, but Presidents, CIA officials, FBI investigators, DEA agents, etc. It's unlikely to be set somewhere fictional the way high fantasy is, but it's very likely to take place in settings that the average reader doesn't/can't visit: Ten Downing Street, A cell in Guantanamo Bay, etc. It has big stakes, recognizable good and bad guys, lots of scope and a major part of the appeal is that it gives a peek into the way the very powerful operate.

Want to know how the president stays in touch while on Airforce One? Want to know how a Mossad agent files reports securely? Want to know how your government secures fissionable material? A high thriller makes an implicit promise to the reader that the writer has researched the book to the degree that, while the characters and the dangers are fictional, the depiction of these people and agencies is as accurate as possible. In fact, that research is at the foundation of the genre's appeal.

In addition, I'd suggest that the resources and authority high thriller characters employ is equivalent to magic in high fantasy: it's how they exert their agency. It's often the source of their problems (especially when it doesn't function correctly or is co-opted from within). It's often arcane in its operation. Finally, it offers readers a sort of wish-fulfillment depiction of the exertion of power.

By contrast, a low thriller avoids powerful people in favor of low-level criminals or regular citizens in danger. While a high thriller might involve an international terrorist plotting an attack on U.S. soil, a low thriller would be an insurance actuary's black sheep brother turning up after 15 years with some pissed off criminals on his trail. Or a low-level mobster who discovers he's been betrayed. Or some oddball criminal types try to pull off one last job, with comically disastrous results.

David Morrell and Donald Westlake wrote these sorts of books, along with many, many others. They can be noirish or comic, the characters are rarely wholly good or bad (although the villains are often Genuinely Awful) and the final confrontation is more likely to take place in a motel or boiler room than the Oval Office or Aswan Dam.

Which isn't to suggest that low thrillers aren't carefully researched, or that the research isn't part of the appeal. But typically, the research isn't there to give the reader a glimpse at the tools and methods of power--you're more likely to find out how an insurance actuary does their job.

Charlie writes high thrillers, by my measure. Halting State deals with high-powered corporate types, law enforcement [spoiler], [spoiler], and [spoiler], too. The way these, er, let's call them something generic like "story elements" operate is extrapolated from his research rather than straight-up researched because it's an sf book, but the effect is similar. The Laundry is, of course, explicitly set within a made-up government agency, and you don't get more high thriller than that.

Me, I write low thrillers. The setting is generally commonplace and localized, most of the characters are regular folks, and the plot is played out through the exercise of personal agency rather than cultural or organizational power. In fact, one of the most persistent criticisms of my books has been that they don't have a high thriller insider's view of the Twenty Palace Society.

What can I say? I have preferences.

Obviously, this model could cover all sorts of thrillers. Is the lawyer protagonist of this courtroom thriller making his case before the Supreme Court or working out of an understaffed public defender's office? Is the hapless schmo ensnared in this erotic thriller the Prime Minister or a beach bum drop out?

I guess it takes a lifelong reader of fantasy--a genre obsessed with questions of power and the political exercise of it--to separate thrillers this way, but that's what I do.

What do you think? Is this a sensible way to examine thrillers? Is it a useful tool for looking at other genres?

Being a science fiction writer means fielding a lot of questions about what the future is going to be like. It also means disappointing a lot of people when I tell them, "I don't know."

Not only do I not know, I don't even pretend to know. I mean, I can extrapolate from trends; I can guesstimate, I can figure out what cool toys I might love and give them to my made-up friends. I can research and see what the current state of technology is, and what's on the design board--but honestly, I'm not even slightly trying to predict the future.

(See? You're disappointed in me already. I can tell from here. But I am just trying to be honest.)

When I write, though, I'm not writing to an audience thirty years from now, or six hundred. I'm writing to an audience of today, with today's concerns and today's zeitgeist and today's worries in their heads.

Ahh, yes, today's worries. But many of those worries are universal--one might even say, human. And that stories that deal with those universal worries will remain fresh, or at least stand a better chance of it.

So I can't tell you what we'll be using for power technology in fifty years. I can't tell you if the Singularity will or will not happen, though I have my opinions (and I have opinions, too, about what the turn-of-the-millennium fascination with the idea reveals about our society, because projections tell you more about a person or a culture than just about anything else they do). I can't tell you whether we'll manage a credible approximation of A-life in my... er... lifetime.

But I can tell you how a human being reacts to change, and where we keep our ghosts, and how much work it is making ethical choices in an imperfect world. Because there are futurists and there are fictioneers, and we excel at different things.

...this is that post about the future of web publishing that I promised Charlie I would write.

As many of you probably already know, I am a writer. I write science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, nonfiction (notably book reviews and criticism--which are actually two different things), short stories, novels, poetry--basically, anything that will sit still long enough for me to slap a keyboard on top of it.

As of the end of this month, I have published sixteen novels, a handful of novellas, and almost a hundred pieces of short fiction. It's been critically well received, garnered me some praise and a handful of awards, and has performed modestly well in terms of what the publishing industry refers to as "the numbers."

Like every other narrative-prose writer on the planet who does not have the covers pulled up over her head (and believe me, the temptation is enormous) I am trying to figure out how the heck to continue doing what I am good at--what I have spent twenty years learning how to do at a professional level--in the face of developing technology.

I do believe that books (both paper and electronic) are here to stay, for a long time to come. Paper books are a mature technology: they're a durable and inexpensive way in which to archive information. While modern books are not the thousand-year technology that a medieval or even Renaissance book was, they can still endure for many years undegraded. Ebooks, meanwhile, are tremendously portable, revisable, and information-dense in terms of bits per pound. They adapt admirably to multitasking--I often read on my laptop between IMs or emails, for example--and you can carry six hundred of them in your carryon as easily as one.

But ebooks are not optimized to the web, because the web can do all kinds of things that a print book cannot--and an ebook often can.

I'm currently engaged in a crowdfunded side project with a group of other SFF writers and visual artists (and a computer geek or two) that's attempting to explore some of the options for things a web-optimized written narrative can do. That narrative (what we're calling a "hyperfiction environment") is called Shadow Unit. While it exists in various places around the web (a wiki, some livejournals, some web pages linked to pieces of fiction), the launchpad is here.

We've been at it for three years now, and we've learned some very interesting things.

  • A hyperfiction can be nonlinear.

So that might seem self-evident, but it's one of the most interesting things for us as writers. While the main narrative of Shadow Unit (the "episodes," a serial comprised of short stories, novellas, and (so far) two short novels) is linear, it forms a kind of scaffolding on which other shorter stories are hung. Meanwhile, the characters who maintain blogs maintain them in real time, and they are interactive--as long as participants respect the fourth wall and their privileged information, and engage with the characters as if they were real people.

Which leads us to the next point:

  • A hyperfiction can be interactive

Self-evident, right? But tricky. The people playing along have to be willing to separate their in-character and out-of-character knowledge, just as they would in a roll-playing game. But if they are willing to do that, it allows ARG-like possibilities to emerge. There are several instances in Shadow Unit where the narrative (which sometimes happens in real time in the stories as well as the blogs) was significantly affected by things the fans did or information that they provided to the characters.

  • A hyperfiction can be multimedia.

Shadow Unit has not exploited this particular element particularly well. We've got some music, some web pages, some visual art (and we're working on more), but most of the people involved in the project are writers first, so we've not been as successful at broadening out into things like comics, video, and audio as we would have liked.

  • A hyperfiction can be confusing.

It's easy as heck to lose people in the corners. Hyperfiction by its nature is sprawling--it rewards curiosity, investigation, peering into corners. (Reading dozens of blog comment threads for scraps of narrative, for example, is much easier at the beginning of a five-year narrative run than the end.)

It will help, in the future, to develop protocols for mapping hyperfictions (a sort of table of contents, perhaps, graphically represented in the form of a web? Shadow Unit has done this with a "suggested reading order" page on the wiki, but experience has revealed this to be helpful but not entirely adequate.).

On the other hand, some of the fun is the discovery, and the fan community delights in sharing their discoveries with each other, so we intentionally hide stuff in inobvious places. There's a balance to be struck between the fans who adore logic puzzles and the ones who just want to read a damned story, and accommodation must be made for both.

We do this with a BBS where (a) can show off their finds to (b).

  • Fan engagement is key.

We have discovered that the more we gives the fans the keys to the enterprise, the more they enjoy it. There's a wiki, a BBS, interactive blogs--and a thriving and integrated fan community. We've creative-commonsed the whole endeavor, and fans have put together Kindle versions and programmed Shadow Unit Google widgets that sound the alert when new content appears.

  • Keep the content coming.

Something new every week is ideal. Two or three times a week would be better, but we are mortal and all have other work.

Also, keep clever with the content. We've run contests (an Easter-egg hunt, a vidding contest), put up websites, mailed out boxes of goodies "from the characters" to their internet friends, run episodes in real-time day by day with blog posts that reflected the narrative as it happened, and so on.

And there's room for playfulness. One of the characters wrote a short story about his alternate life as a Texas sheriff and posted it to his livejournal for "Down The Rabbit Hole" day, as an example.

This is part of what makes hyperfiction unique and wonderful--along with the nonlinearity and interactivity. It also keeps the creators scrambling to come up with ever niftier stuff.

  • Making it pay for itself?

We're donation-funded. (We decided early on not to sell advertising, but that may someday change.)

So far, we're making beer money, and the site is paying for itself, but not for our time. First season was better than second, but then, the bottom fell out of the world economy in our second year, so it's nonconclusive--and we just started our third year, which so far seems to be more on the level of the first.

Merchandise has largely been break-even so far, though we are planning dead-tree versions of the primary narrative arcs, and those should be out this year. We'll see if anybody wants them.

So we haven't cracked the number-one problem of making a living telling stories in the information era, but this was an experiment, and we're still playing with variables.

  • Have a plan.

Since we're keeping an enormous number of balls in the air, it's essential that the team have a plan, that somebody or at most two somebodies be in charge of keeping track of how the narrative is adhering to that plan, and wow, is shared-calendar software a godsend.

Also, everybody has to be prepared to work together to cover crises and pitch in when something breaks.

  • A hyperfection presents the opportunity for extraordinary richness.

It's astounding how real this world has become to me, and to others. Because I am not the only one writing the characters, because they have lives outside the story arc (they live in and around Washington, DC, and lately have been blogging up the storm of the century) they feel like friends to me rather than people I made up. I hear similar things from the fans--that it's a unique experience to be able to drop a fictional character an email and get a response, or to get a package from one in the snail mail.

That's the baseline so far: we have learned that this stuff is really cool. And that there's tons of unexplored potential for similar narratives out there.

Sometimes I feel that, to what hyperfiction will eventually become, Shadow Unit is the equivalent of very early television--shot like a stage play, not yet quite exploiting its medium, balancing between fish and fowl.

Which is one of the reasons, I suppose, that our mascot is the platypus. Because what we've got here is weird and curious and hard to classify, but hey, somehow it works, and I, at least, am finding it utterly fascinating to spend time working on.

Now that I've got my schedule for next year untangled ...

First up in print in 2010 will be "The Trade of Queens", book #6 in the Merchant Princes series — due out in April, this concludes the current story arc (the one beginning in "The Clan Corporate" and most recently continued in "The Revolution Business"). That'll be a hardcover release from Tor, at around the same time that "The Revolution Business" shows up in paperback (and hopefully in the UK).

There are more stories to tell in that universe, but I'm taking a couple of years off from writing them: I need a break.

The second novel in 2010 is a surprise substitute: rather than the previously-scheduled sequel to "Halting State", it's going to be book #3 in the Laundry files: "The Fuller Memorandum":

In the shadowy world of the Laundry, there is One True Religion. Bob Howard is about to become a true believer -- and he really wishes he wasn't.

Stressed-out and looking for a quiet life after a work-related fatal accident, Bob Howard thinks that a spell working in the Laundry's secret archives and catching up on the filing is just the ticket. But when his boss Angleton falls under suspicion and a top secret dossier goes missing, Bob is determined to get to the bottom of a puzzle: what was in the missing Fuller Memorandum, and why are the Russians so interested in it?

I've always had a secret hankering to write cold war spy thrillers; thanks to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the Laundry, and a hidden nameless horror from the NKVD's files, I'm getting my opportunity ...

(Why the switch? Well, I was just settling down to work on the "Halting State" sequel last summer when the news went nonlinear. That book is meant to be near-future SF, which means it's highly dependent on the state of the world today. It was bad enough when, as I was waiting for "Halting State" to work its way into print, bits of the plot kept turning up in the news; this time around, one of last year's major news stories ate my plot! So I decided to (a) go back to the drawing board, and (b) wait for the financial crisis to settle down a bit. I'm now in the re-planning stages, and the book should see the light of day in mid-2011.)

Specials

Merchandise

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