Tag Archives: fantasy

China Miéville

Fantasy As A Challenge

“When people dis fantasy—mainstream readers and SF readers alike—they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps—via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on—the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.

Of course I’m not saying that any fan of Tolkien is no friend of mine—that would cut my social circle considerably. Nor would I claim that it’s impossible to write a good fantasy book with elves and dwarfs in it—Michael Swanwick’s superb IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER gives the lie to that. But given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?

Thankfully, the alternative tradition of fantasy has never died. And it’s getting stronger. Chris Wooding, Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle, Paul di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others, are all producing works based on fantasy’s radicalism. Where traditional fantasy has been rural and bucolic, this is often urban, and frequently brutal. Characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they’re not defined by race or sex. Things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life. This is fantasy not as comfort-food, but as challenge.

The critic Gabe Chouinard has said that we’re entering a new period, a renaissance in the creative radicalism of fantasy that hasn’t been seen since the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, and in echo of which he has christened the Next Wave. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m excited. This is a radical literature. It’s the literature we most deserve.”

China Miéville


I don’t usually post quotes this long, but as I’ve been working on Coal Belly, and after publishing my essay on problematic fiction this quote from 2002 has been kicking around in my head. (Originally from here, but it’s been modified over the years.)

My work has frequently been described as “difficult to categorize”—and while I label the Bell Forging Cycle as urban fantasy for simplicity, it’s no secret that its more accurate description is much more complicated. I revel in this, genre classification is boring at best and writing dangerous or challenging fiction within the “Next Wave” the “New Weird” or whatever we want to call it is exactly where I want to be as a writer.

💀🦑💀

Your Fav is Problematic—That's Okay

Your Fave is Problematic—That’s Okay

My favorite character from A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, is Jaime Lannister, the heir to the Lannister family, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and an all-around terrible person. No, really. There are forum threads dedicated to his awfulness, and I don’t disagree with anything they say. He is awful; that’s not up for debate. But I don’t care; I still like him. There is something about his wit, his tenacity, his strange sense of honor, and his odd drive to do right by his family that draws me in as a reader. He’s my favorite.

In his Banquet Speech, William Faulkner observes good writing as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I adore that line. As a character, Jamie embodies that for me. There is so much to loathe but a lot to like. It makes him complicated, and it makes him human. However, in some circles, my statement draws ire. How can I enjoy reading about someone so terrible? After all, he is someone who symbolizes the opposite of many values I hold dear. To those people, it doesn’t make sense; it feels two-faced and hypocritical.


“...the human heart in conflict with itself...”


These voices are nothing new. I remember hearing them as a kid from conservatives, and I’ve heard them as an adult from progressives. Recently they’ve become particularly pronounced on social media, shouting down and hunting those who dare explore life through the lens of problematic fiction. Over the last few years, I’ve seen several authors attacked—on social media, within articles, in reviews, and on blogs. Fans have gone after them for the problematic circumstances, events, and behavior of characters within their novels. It’s not surprising; it’s an extension of the same attitude we have seen play out in the social sphere. In addition to holding real-life humans accountable, fandom is now trying to hold fiction accountable.

In 2016, the internet was in a frenzy over one of the questioners from the second presidential debate, Ken Bone, a power plant operator from Illinois. Overnight, he became an internet sensation. He saw endorsement deals, a “Bone Zone” T-shirt line, appearances on ESPN, and was satirized during a Saturday Night Live cold open. But like all people, Ken Bone was human, and soon his heroism was tarnished. Afterwards, Katie Rogers of The New York Times wrote an excellent article exploring his rise and fall from fame titled “We May Be Leaving the Ken Bone Zone.” The article discussed the depth in which people investigated, and eventually exposed all of Ken Bone’s history-both positive and negative. Within the article, there was a line that struck me regarding the fragility of the internet. One I found myself mulling over and over. That line? “The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


“The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


Within some fandoms and genres[1], there is this strange narrative forming that our heroes, and largely our fiction, need to be morally and ethically pure. It leads to the belief that fiction shouldn’t have flawed characters, or focus on stories with plotlines that wrestle with difficult themes. And heaven forbid those characters don’t get their comeuppance, and those themes don’t get resolved satisfactorily. That sort of nuance doesn’t play in the fandom echo chamber.

This leads back to Rogers’ statement: She’s not wrong. The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance. The internet, in particular, abhors it. Nuance is challenging. Nuance requires you to read the whole article, not just the headline. Nuance wants you to put aside your initial emotions and reflect. It forces you to observe the entire character, rather than their action at a particular moment. It loves to do nothing more than draw lines in the sand and force others to step over and pick a side. You are this, and I am that. You’re bad; I’m good.

In early January, Fonda Lee, the author of Jade City (Go read it; it’s good.), had a great little thread on Twitter separating fiction into “the world as it is” or “the world as you wish it to be.” We can call these the mirror and the beacon. The beacon, as Lee says, shows us the world as it could be. It’s aspirational, the shining city on a hill[2]. While the mirror forces us to wrestle with the ugliness of reality and its contradictions, it also takes Faulkner’s approach to fiction—it forces the heart to go to war.

If you’ve sat in on any of my panels, you might have heard me mention that one of the reasons I love genre fiction is that it allows us a place to explore difficult—and often challenging—ideas. Books can be closed and put away. However, that doesn’t mean the themes and ideas held within the pages won’t be disturbing. It also doesn’t mean characters won’t say vile things or perform despicable acts. Often both will happen, and sometimes the results might not align with the reader’s worldview. Here be dragons, after all.

I think grappling, as both a reader and a writer, with challenging ideas, plots, and characters are necessary for a vibrant fictive landscape[3]. It’s also faithful to humanity; human history is rich in dichotomy. Nothing with people is ever black and white. People let you down as often as they impress you. That’s what makes them people. That’s what makes love, love. Love goes beyond the faults. It forgives in spite of transgressions.


“It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.”


Lately, when someone asks me what my manuscript Coal Belly is about, I often have a simple answer: “It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.” I want that complexity in my work. I want people to like a character, yet struggle with their decisions. I want to explore the gray. It’s why fiction like The Lord of the Rings[4] or The Chronicles of Narnia never drew me in the same way as other fantasy novels. The villains were too villainous, the heroes too heroic. The points made were too explicit and too heavy-handed.

That works for some readers. They’re both fine examples of the beacon, and some people want that in their escapism. However, to me, it comes across as patronizing and quixotic.

Mikey Numan, in his review of the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, described its cast of characters thusly: “No villains; only viewpoints.” This means that within the movie, “evil” or the concept of “bad” becomes a byproduct of the characters’ behavior; even the good, well-intentioned characters say and do problematic things[5]. In reality, villains don’t see themselves as villains, and heroes aren’t always heroic. I am more intrigued by stories willing to take this stance, stories that ask difficult questions and force me—the reader—to decide rather than go out of its way to hammer home a particular point.


“No villains; only viewpoints.”


Some people aren’t keen on being uncomfortable. What is an engaging plot point for one person might be disturbing for another. That’s okay. Fiction is like food; not everyone’s tastes are the same. However, that doesn’t mean that we should restrict one set of narratives in favor of the other. Nor does it mean that challenging fiction is inherently bad. The existence of characters and circumstances that are problematic aren’t excusing harmful behavior. Neither are they praising or glorifying the legitimate evils of the past. They’re merely an observation. Good fiction interweaves those challenges into its prose. Sharing points of view, circumstances, and experiences[6] through fiction gives us a place to build both empathy and sympathy. It can help to expose us to other walks of life, and it lets us explore the viewpoints of others—viewpoints that we might not have access to in our everyday lives.

For many readers and some fandoms, it seems that, unless the writer features a Jim Halpert, who slowly turns and stares at the camera as punctuation for what is absurd or offensive, we’re unable to parse it for ourselves. It was funny in The Office, but I loathe it in my fiction. I’m not into passive consumption. I don’t want or need my hand to be held as I read a book. I want the challenge. I want nuance. I want to struggle with my emotions about characters. I want to be offended and shocked. I want to be pushed and made uncomfortable. I want a place where the world’s imperfections are mirrored and explored. I want problematic fiction, with problematic circumstances, filled with problematic characters, experiencing problematic viewpoints. I want to get out of my small echo chamber and explore the vastness of humanity—warts and all. Within the mirror, reconciling those things isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. This is why we have fiction. This is why we tell stories. This is what fandoms and the echo chambers need. This is why Jamie Lannisters exist. So, let our hearts be in conflict.


Let our hearts be in conflict.


1 Most notably, Young adult and New adult but it’s bled into Sci-fi and Fantasy. Also, soapbox moment here… New adult features protagonists ‘between the ages of 18-30.’ Look, I’m 36 right now, so this is an old-man-shaking-his-fist-at-clouds thing, but at 30 you ain’t a new adult.

2 Thanks, Gipper.

3 Also for emotional maturity, but more on that later.

4 There are a few exceptions here, most notably: Boromir, he is an incredibly complex personality, and arguably the best character in the series. Yeah, I went there.

5 It’s a great review and a pretty solid film. I say this as a guy who is not a fan of Miyazaki movies.

6 And discussing them. Please, discuss away! Dialog is vital and important. You could argue that discussion is why complex fiction exists. It wants to be talked about.


[Note:] I originally published this article with the title “Your Fav is Problematic—That’s Okay.” While either is technically correct, I have since changed the “Fav” to “Fave” to closer align with the Problematic Fave meme.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

It's done!

Another Finished Manuscript

Big news today! I just finished the rough draft for my new fantasy project: Our Dust Echoes! Whew. Finishing something like this is a weird mix of emotions. I’m glad to have reached this point, but it’s always hard to feel finished. But it is finished. The tale is told. As I mentioned on Instagram, Twitter, and pretty much everywhere else I had intended that this would be a series of small novellas… the, er… story grew in the telling.
Our Dust Echoes - Final Rough ManuscriptI’m going to let it rest for a bit, then I will be diving into my first pass of edits. Expect a lot more to come on this particular project, an official announcement will be really soon. Dust is very different from The Bell Forging Cycle in a lot of interesting ways. I think you’ll dig it.

The Beauty of the Standalone

The Beauty In The Standalone

I watched Whiplash the other day and I absolutely loved it. In my opinion, it should have won best picture. Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons are fantastic and Damien Chazelle’s storytelling is superb. In many ways, it’s a fantastic example of the perfect story. It didn’t have thirty minutes of slow character introduction and back story like so many of the superhero movies leading the box office these days. It didn’t have a long drawn out ending that wrapped everything up in a nice little package. It was succinct. It was sharp. It was alive. It left a lot to the imagination. It was beautiful.

Whiplash is a great example for what I am about to dive into. You see, several times at recent conventions, during discussions of favorite books, I have had people tell me that they only read books in a series. That is unfortunate. There are a lot of great books out there, and many of them are standalone novels. But I’ve heard this sentiment many times, and I think this kind of thinking tends to prevail within the speculative fiction market. Many novels get thrust into a series when they would have been better off remaining a single work. Sci-fi and fantasy publishers tend to be looks for writers who want to work on a series, especially in the YA market. Take a look at this list of the purported “Top 25 Fantasy Novels” only three are stand alone books (Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Robert Jackson Bennet’s City Of Stairs, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.)

Some of this is a reaction to the marketplace. Publishers want to sell a bunch of books and people clearly love supporting a series. They love the long story. They enjoy following characters from one book to the next. The odds are high that someone who loves the first book will come back to the second. As a reader, author, and a publisher, I completely understand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the series as a concept. I love reading them. Hell, I’m writing one. But, I think as fans of speculative fiction we need to be willing to embrace the standalone novel as quickly as we embrace the series. Not every sci-fi and fantasy story should be three, six, or twelve novels long to catch our interest. Like Whiplash we should have vibrant stories that are told in one succinct volume. We should allow for stories that leave us wondering and send our imagination spinning. We should be eager to support those books as quickly as we support a series. Think back to some of the classics speculative fiction authors: Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, and the likes of Alfred Bester. Some of their best work was standalone novels. There’s a beauty in the standalone. And as fans of sci-fi and fantasy, it’s important to remember that.

How about you? What is your favorite standalone sci-fi or fantasy novel? Why not leave a reply and let us know in the comments!

Red Litten World Cover Reveal

Red Litten World Cover Reveal Is Coming June 4th

The date has been set, the stars have aligned, and it is time. The cover reveal for Red Litten World, book three of The Bell Forging Cycle, is coming June 4th, 2015. One again the incredibly talented Jon Contino is back with some beautiful hand lettering. After seeing his incredible work for the covers of The Stars Were Right and Old Broken Road, you’ve probably detected a theme beginning to form for the series. I’d wager you can sorta guess what this cover will look like… or can you. [Cue dramatic music.]

“…legend said that it had come from a mysterious inner realm beneath the red-litten world—a black realm of peculiar-sensed beings which had no light at all, but which had great civilisations and mighty gods…”

H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, The Mound

As with all big announcements and cover reveals, folks who subscribe to my newsletter will be the first people who get a glimpse at the new cover. Why not join those brave and noble few and… sign up today →.

Yep, that's a gorilla drinking a martini. Thanks Hollywood.

Friday Link Pack 03/13/2015

Hooray! It’s Friday the 13th! AGAIN! Twice in one year! That means… er, it’s time to share a few links I’ve found over the last few days. (Weeks, in this case.) Some of these I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…

Terry Pratchett:

Sir Terry Pratchett, Renowned Fantasy Author, Dies Aged 66
Yesterday we lost one of the greats, and I am sad to see him go. This BBC article has a good recap of his life and accomplishments. As I mention in my post from yesterday, the tweets about meeting Death towards the end… I ain’t going to lie, I got a little teary.

Neil Gaiman: ‘Terry Pratchett Isn’t Jolly. He’s Angry’
Great piece from one of Pratchett’s friends. Gaiman goes into details about the real Pratchett. The one he knew. Very much worth a read.

Help Fight Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Pratchett was a patron and supporter of Alzheimer’s Research UK and I’d highly recommend other fans consider donating to help fight this terrible disease. A little help can go a long way.

Writing:

The Writers’ Room Is Always Available For Writers To Work
Incubators are spaces in the tech world where small teams are able to work on projects. For the last several decades The Writers’ Room of Boston has been doing the same thing for writers. I absolutely love this idea. Would love to get something like this going in Seattle.

Free Novel or Series Outline Template Inspired By J.K. Rowling
I have mentioned Rowling’s outlines in the past. Well, writer Cindy Grigg has put together a handy template inspired by the detailed grid and has made it available for free. [Thanks to Drew Gerken for sharing this.]

“Are They Going To Say This Is Fantasy?”
One of my favorite writers, Ursula K. Le Guin muses on the resistance for some writers (in this case Kazuo Ishiguro) to admit they’re writing fantasy. Fantastic and poignant piece.

A Psychological Perspective On Writing Talent
My friend and fellow speculative fiction author Christine Crawford (of the infamous YA writing duo C. N. Crawford) is also a psychologist. In the wake of the now infamous Ryan Boudinot article from a few weeks ago she explores the idea of writing talent from a psychological perspective.

Random:

Mars Has Lost An Arctic Ocean’s Worth Of Water
A red and blue planet? Is such a thing even possible? Yes it is.

Archaeologists Find Two ‘Lost Cities’ Deep In Honduras Jungle
It’s like a headline from Indiana Jones. Two sister cities, one which could be the lost city of the monkey god, found in a deep jungle inhabited by monkeys that don’t like humans very much. Wait… wasn’t this the plot of Congo?

No One Could See The Color Blue Until Modern Times
What color is the dress? Well, if you asked someone a few hundred years ago you’d get a much different response than you would today.

StalaraCraft
If you’re a nerd (and you’re reading my blog, so you probably are) who likes crafts and food and other randomly awesome nerdy things then I recommend checking out this YouTube channel. Weekly the ever-bubbly Stalara presents a new geektastic DIY. Lot of fun.

Random Wikipedia Article of the Week:

Wherein I got to Wikipedia and hit Random Article until I find something good/weird/offensive/hilarious/interesting/etc. This weeks entry:

Toilet Paper Orientation
The pros and cons that revolve around the orientation of toilet paper. Are you an over orientation supporter or do you throw your vote for the ever powerful under orientation consortium?

Lovecraft Story of the Week:

Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme

“I am He who howls in the night;
I am He who moans in the snow;
I am He who hath never seen light;
I am He who mounts from below.”

Gif of the Week:

I'm the sheep.