Friday, December 30, 2011

Phantastes by George MacDonald

I’ve been intending for years to read George MacDonald, and I’ve recently finished his Phantastes.  Published in 1858, it’s described as “A Faerie Romance for Men and Women” and takes the form of a semi-allegorical journey through a fairyland markedly different from the standard Victorian model.

A young man called Anodos (pathless in Greek) finds himself transported into an enchanted forest, where he’s menaced by evil tree-spirits and helped by an assortment of beautiful ladies, wandering knights and kindly matrons.  Searching for a woman he’s sung into life out of marble, he finds instead a sinister shadow that follows him without needing to be cast by anything.

During a stay in a vast palace, apparently deserted except for presences just beyond vision, in the course of which he reads (or rather experiences) a number of strange tales, Anodos finds his Marble Lady again.  However, he breaks a taboo on touching her and is plunged into a sunless underworld of suffering.  From here, he must find a way to redeem himself through heroism, and to lose his shadow.

This is a short novel and, for mid-Victorian literature, not a difficult read, although it contains elements that might feel awkward to readers only used to modern books, especially its long paragraphs consisting of description or internal monologue.  Nevertheless, Anodos is an engaging first-person, veering between the ideals, enthusiasm, recklessness and foolishness of a young man, and the mixture of action and mystery comes fast enough to make the story very readable.

MacDonald’s Fairyland has all the blend of beauty and horror, splendour and danger, as anything in the Brothers Grimm, although that isn’t immediately obvious.  Anodos’s first encounter is with a tribe of cute flower fairies, though well realised, but that’s the last time anything of the kind rears its head.  Fairyland is the journey from youth to maturity, so it starts with childhood.  Indeed, many of his encounters seem to have a sexual edge to them, though expressed in symbolic or romantic terms.

Phantastes is an allegory, but not one that pushes its meaning down the reader’s throat.  The shadow that dogs Anodos, for instance, could be interpreted in many ways, ranging from arrogance to the sorrows of adulthood.  Many episodes, though clear enough in detail, are less so taken as a whole, and display a rich symbolism, rather than straightforward allegory. 

When Anodos escapes from the dismal underworld, for instance, he comes to a cottage on an island, where a beautiful, kindly old woman sings him comforting songs between allowing him through the cottage’s four doors.  Each of these doors leads him to a far-off setting, representing a sorrow of past, present and future, and a fourth destination he remembers nothing of on his return.  The episode suggests many interpretations, but its strength lies in the power of the emotions it evokes.

George MacDonald isn’t the most fashionable fantasy writer these days, but he had a profound influence on writers ranging from Lewis Carroll to Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S Lewis regarded MacDonald as his greatest influence.  Reading Phantastes might require a little readjustment of mindset for a reader used to modern styles, but it’s well worth the small amount of effort.  I strongly recommend it, and I’m looking around for other MacDonald books, especially his late romance Lilith.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Using History in Fantasy

You can’t have epic fantasy without history. 

Well, perhaps that’s too sweeping a statement, and someone’s going to produce an example of epic fantasy with no sense of history whatsoever, but it would certainly be an unusual exception.  On the whole, an epic fantasy novel (or trilogy, or dodecalogy, or whatever) arises out of the history of the world it’s set in. 

How well, for instance, would Lord of the Rings work without some knowledge of the affairs of Arnor and Gondor, the War of the Last Alliance, the Fall of Numenor, and even the War of the Great Jewels?  Would Song of Ice and Fire make sense without knowing why Daenerys is in exile, or the past relations between the Starks, the Lannisters and the other great families?  Or the Belgariad, without knowing why there’s no King of Riva?

And so on.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that all that history has to be laid out in the books; but, even when it’s not, the author needs to understand what’s going on, in order to communicate that sense of connectedness to the readers.

This means that anyone hoping to write epic fantasy – and many other types of fantasy – successfully should have at least a rudimentary understanding of how history works.  There’s really no substitute for studying real history – whether that’s in a formal academic course, or just by private reading – but I want to point out a few things to look out for.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that history is never neat, except in retrospect.  We speak, in our own history, of eras such as “classical”, “mediaeval”, “Renaissance” and so on, but these were usually defined much later. 

Even the most obvious of watersheds wouldn’t necessarily have seemed so obvious at the time.  Take, for instance, the Roman withdrawal from Britain.  What could be more simple?  The Romans were here, then they were gone.  That must have been clear even to the people experiencing it.

Well, no.  For one thing, the “Roman” way of life had been changing for a long time: people drifting away from the cities, a severe economic recession, the legions populated almost entirely by barbarians – even a new religion.  The whole nature of the empire had changed – as early as the 3rd century, Britain had been virtually independent of Rome for some time, with its own emperor.

Very little really changed in 410 – “the Romans” didn’t leave Britain (there were very few actual Romans there anyway), and the way of life didn’t substantially change for a while.  All that actually happened was that the Emperor Honorius ordered the province to look to its own defence, so that, in effect, Britons stopped paying taxes to Rome and began paying them to local warlords instead.  Besides, it was all a temporary measure.  Once the Visigothic menace had been dealt with, the empire would reassert itself, and things would be as they always had been.

That didn’t happen, of course, but it would have taken time for awareness of that to sink in.  Meanwhile, parts of the province were being ruled by barbarians, but that was nothing new.  Barbarians were everywhere in the empire (the Roman general who faced Alaric and his Visigoths was actually a Vandal) and they were quite trendy, in any case – fresh and vigorous, in place of the rather stale Roman culture.  The locals learnt their languages and adopted their fashions.  They became English, but only gradually.

As far as Europe as a whole went, the Roman empire never really ended.  Charlemagne refounded it, and then his creation became the Holy Roman Empire.  Napoleon consciously tried to revive the great European Empire, as did Hitler and Mussolini.  Today, it takes a somewhat different form, with its centre in Brussels.

Wait a minute – did I mention an economic recession in relation to the Roman Empire?  Did they have things like that back then?  And economics certainly has nothing to do with epic fantasy, does it?

Yes, on both counts.  Fundamentally, economics is the production or acquisition of resources, and trading any surplus for more resources.  That’s been going on not only throughout history, but for a good deal of prehistory too.  There’s evidence of surplus production and trade in Europe even before the last great Ice Age.

Most history is driven by economics.  Going back to Roman Britain, the Romans weren’t there in the first place because they thought it was a cool idea to conquer another country; they were there because Britain was unusually rich in fertile land and minerals such as tin.

This is going to be true even of the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness, with their armies made up of fireball-throwing wizards and squads of dragon-raiders.  They’ll be, among other things, after control of resources or trade-routes, or simply lebensraum for their populations to expand into.  Of course, I’m not suggesting the author should treat readers to a lecture on these subjects, or even necessarily mention them.  S/he should, however, be aware of how the process is working, and maybe drop odd hints.  Without that, all we have is a bunch of aristocrats playing an elaborate and deadly game.

The fashion in the study of history nowadays is to see the effects of cultural and economic forces, rather than individuals.  This is valid to a large extent, as I’ve already suggested, but individuals can sometimes changes the course of history.  “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” it’s said, but that’s a retrospective view of when it does happen.  If Alexander or Napoleon, for instance, had been strangled at birth, many things would have been the same, but not everything.  It’s unlikely that another person would have had quite such a decisive effect on the world.

Individuals can certainly affect the way events are perceived, both at the time and in retrospect.  This applies especially to the reasons behind wars.  Most wars are fought for reasons of economic advantage, or collective forces such as conflicting religions (and often both) but that’s not always what starts a war. 

It’s long been recognised, for instance, that the Trojan War – assuming it happened in something like the way Homer described it – was actually fought over the trade-routes between the Aegean and the Black Sea, which Troy controlled and the Achaeans wanted.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the story of Helen’s abduction or defection should be dismissed.  If you’re trying to fire soldiers up to spend ten years fighting a war far from home, what do you say to them?  “Fight to protect our trade-routes,” or “Fight to stop them stealing your wife, as they stole mine”?

Many scholars, both historians and literary critics, have dismissed the idea that a war could be started by “one woman’s abduction,” yet we’ve just been through a century in which a world war (the first) was “started” by one man’s assassination.  In both cases, of course, there were far more extensive underlying reasons for the war, but it takes something specific to start it.

A good example is the splendidly named War of Jenkins’ Ear.  This was a war fought between Britain and Spain, starting in 1739, in which Britain was trying to break the Spanish monopoly of trade with South America.  What they actually declared war over, however, was the capture and torture of a British seaman called Captain Jenkins by the Spanish, during which his ear was cut off.  The action involved attacks on ports such as Porto Bello and Cartegena, which were what Britain really wanted, but the great symbol of the cause, then and since, is the image of Jenkins’ severed ear.

It’s certainly possible to write epic fantasy without drafting out extensive accounts of historical cause and effect, but the more thought the author puts into the history behind the wars and quests that form the story’s foreground, the more “true” it’s going to feel.

I’ve only made a few scratches on the surface of the subject, but I hope it inspires at least one writer to read more about it.  It doesn’t really matter if you choose to study the history of Europe, or China, or America, or anywhere else you like – the important thing for a fantasy writer is to get a feel for the way history works, and create a truer world.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Naming the Nobility

Epic fantasy, in particular, often deals with royalty and nobility, and many authors use the traditional European hierachy and titles.  That isn’t necessary, of course.  You can make up your own titles, or base them on a different real-world tradition (Japanese, for instance) but some people either find it comfortable to make it familiar or want to give their story a semi-historical feel.  So they fall back on dukes, earls and the rest.

Which would be well and good, except that some of these writers (***coughEddingscough***) don’t seem to have much idea of how the system works.  So I thought it might be useful to give a brief outline of the various ranks, titles and ways of addressing the nobility.  I’m not saying, of course, that you need them in writing fantasy, but if you’re going to use them, use them right.

A few general points to start with.  The first is that all (or almost all) titles have a female equivalent, though for brevity I’ll mainly talk about the male title, since historically the vast majority of title-holders have been male.  The European custom is that the wife of a titled man will have the female equivalent as an courtesy title, but the husband of a titled woman doesn’t receive anything.  A duke’s wife is always a duchess, but the husband of a duchess in her own right won’t be a duke – unless, of course, he has his own title.

The second point is that different names are given in different countries to the same rank of nobility, and some writers make the mistake of using these as if they were different.  You can’t, for instance, have both earls and counts in the same country – though it would make perfect sense to have earls in one country and counts in another.

A third point is that the children of nobility don’t have the same, or equivalent, title as their parents, until they inherit it (this is something I’ve seen in fantasy novels).  They might, of course, be given an equivalent rank in their own right.  For instance, the future King Henry IV of England, who was son and heir of the Duke of Lancaster, was granted the title of Duke of Hereford while his father was still alive, but this wasn’t by right as being a duke’s son.

The only exception I can think of was in the Frankish kingdom, where every son of a king was automatically given the title of king at birth.  The succession worked on a last-man-standing basis.  That was an anomaly, though.

To start at the top, we have emperor/empress.  This is perhaps the least defined of them all.  It was originally a Roman military rank, and was traditionally applied to rulers who claimed continuity from either the Roman or Byzantine empires, but it’s been applied to other rulers, and has been used as a translation of titles such as Mikado.

In general, any single ruler of an empire can be styled an emperor.  He should rule a domain made up from multiple peoples, where one dominates the rest (if they’re equal, it would be a federation).  An emperor or empress is styled his/her/your Imperial Majesty and is officially e.g. Emperor John, i.e. without a surname.  Children will be princes or princesses, although the heir is sometimes styled Grand Duke.

King/queen is obvious enough: a single ruler of a fairly unified realm, usually chosen for life by right of descent, although systems of election have sometimes been used (though not democratic election).  A king will be styled his/her/your Majesty, though in a mediaeval setting, “my liege” is a better form of address, and will be e.g. King John (though many Polish kings, for some reason, are referred to by first name and surname).  The ubiquitous “my king”, “my queen” etc. is incorrect.

A king’s children will have the courtesy title of prince/princess, though any other title they’re given in their own right (e.g. duke) will normally outrank that.

Prince/princess can either be an courtesy title, as mentioned above, for the children of a king or queen, or the ruler of a self-contained region who owes personal allegiance to a king or emperor.  The best-known example of this is Prince of Wales, the title held by the eldest son of the English king since the 13th century, and other European monarchies have an equivalent – in Spain, for instance, it’s Prince of Asturias.

Occasionally, a principality will achieve complete independence, and the prince will become, in effect, a king.  Present-day examples of this in Europe are Monaco and Liechtenstein.

In imperial Russia, prince was a rank of the nobility, rather than being connected with the royal family.

A prince/princess is styled his/her/your Highness (or Royal Highness, or Imperial Highness if the son or daughter of an emperor) and a prince’s children (though not normally a princess’s, unless she rules a principality in her own right) will have the same title.  A prince is Prince John, except for the Russian princes mentioned above, who would be Prince John Smith.

Grand Duke/Grand Duchess is a title that evolved gradually during the mediaeval period referring to semi-autonomous rulers of large provinces, too big and powerful to be styled duchies.  Many, as with the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century, were self-conferred, but the title became more common in post-mediaeval times, especially in Germany and Russia.

The only grand duchy in Europe now is Luxembourg, and the autonomous grand duke is in the same position as the autonomous princes.  The correct form of address is “Royal Highness” or “Grand Ducal Highness”.

The heirs to the Austrian and Russian emperors were usually granted the title of grand duke.

Duke/Duchess (spellings vary, e.g. French duc, but the title doesn’t vary greatly) is normally the highest rank that qualifies as nobility rather than royalty, although many dukes have tended to be members of the royal family.  A duke/duchess is styled his/her/your Grace, and their children have the courtesy title lord/lady (always with the first name – Lord John or Lord John Smith, not Lord Smith) although they may be given specific titles of Marquess or Earl that are in the family’s gift.

A duke will always be the Duke of Somewhere – he might be referred to as Duke John, but that isn’t strictly correct.  Occasionally, a woman holding the title in her own right will be styled duke, rather than duchess.  Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, technically holds the title Duke of Normandy and of Lancaster, not Duchess (it’s as Duke of Normandy that she reigns over the Channel Islands).

There are two kinds of dukes – those that hold a dukedom and those that hold a duchy.  A dukedom is simply the state of being a duke, but a duchy is, like the semi-autonomous principalities, a state ruled by a duke who’s the personal vassal of a monarch.  The only two duchies in England are Lancaster and Cornwall, and, in a feudal sense, inhabitants of those are subjects of the duke, who’s a subject of the queen.  This is academic, firstly because citizenship laws outrank feudal ones, secondly because the Duke of Lancaster is always the monarch and the Duke of Cornwall the heir.  In a mediaeval-style setting, though, this distinction would be very important.

Marquess/Marchioness (French Marquis/Marquise, German Margrave/Margravine) was originally an earl/count/graf who had extra powers and rights in return for holding the marches (i.e. border-country).  Many marquesses are the eldest sons of dukes, waiting to inherit the main title, but some hold the title in their own right – the Marquess of Bath, for instance.

A marquess/marchioness is styled his lordship/her ladyship/my lord/my lady, and can be properly addressed or referred to as e.g. Lord Bath (this is also true of an earl, viscount or baron, but not a duke).

Earl/Countess (general European Count, French Comte/Comtesse, German Graf/Gräfin) is, along with baron, the most common rank of nobility, and can be either the Earl of Somewhere, Earl John or Earl Smith (though the two former are probably safer for fantasy, and certainly for a mediaeval setting).  The correct style and address are the same as for a marquess.

Earl was the Anglo-Saxon title, while count was used in the Frankish domains.  William of Normandy tried to rename the English earls as counts, but that didn’t last.  However, the wife of an earl had no specific title, other than the all-purpose Lady, so the female form stuck.  That’s why the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, is properly Lady Godgifu (or Godiva) but is referred to in the Domesday Book as the Countess Godiva.

A count could be the ruler of a “county” (not really the same as a modern county) in the same way a duke was of a duchy, but might be either the direct vassal of the king, or vassal to the local duke.

The sons of an earl have the courtesy title “the Honourable” (shortened to “the Hon.”) before their names, while daughters are “Lady” (like Lady Diana Spencer).  An earldom may also be given as a courtesy title to the son of a duke or marquess.

Viscount/Viscountess (French Vicomte/Vicomtesse) is literally a “vice-count”, and therefore one step down from an earl/count.  The rank is often given to the heir of an earl, but can be held in its own right.  The style and address is the same as above, and the title is either Viscount of Somewhere, Viscount Smith, or Viscount Smith of Somewhere.

Baron/Baroness is the lowest rank of nobility.  Under the feudal system, a baron held a large stretch of land either directly from the king or from a duke or count, and individual knights would hold their manors from the baron.  A baron isn’t “of” anywhere (although modern life-peers are usually “Baron Smith of Cleethorpes” or whatever).  They would normally be Lord John in a mediaeval context, or Lord Smith later.  The correct style is as above.

The children of a baron have the courtesy title “the Honourable”.

Knight (French Chevalier, German Ritter, many others you can easily look up) counts as gentry (i.e. a gentleman) rather than nobility.  A knight was specifically a military rank, so traditionally there was no female equivalent – if you want a female knight in your world, she’ll just have to be a knight.  I’m not aware of any historical cases, but several appeared in the mediaeval romances.  A knight’s wife would simply be styled Lady, or Dame in French, and the latter is used as the female equivalent in modern times.

A knight may be styled either Sir John or Sir John Smith.  He should never, ever, under any circumstances, be styled Sir Smith.  His wife would be Lady Mary.

Baronet is, essentially, a hereditary knight – Sir Winston Churchill was a baronet.  The title is post-mediaeval, and is in all other ways the same as knight.

This isn't by any means a complete explanation of the subject: for that, you'd need Burke's or Debrett's, which you might find in a large reference library, although they're probably online by now.  I hope, though, it's given enough idea of the nobility's overall structure to be useful in writing fantasy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Solitudes (The Ægypt Cycle, Part 1) by John Crowley

A few years ago, I read John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big and was blown away by it.  It was a book which, as Ursula Le Guin put it, “all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy”, incorporating as it did family saga, fairyland, historical figures and modern urban life.  And wonderful characters.  And beautiful prose.

I hadn’t heard of any other books by Crowley before, recently, I picked up a copy of Ægypt, since retitled The Solitudes  when the former became the overall title of the tetralogy it begins.  Having just finished it, I’m happy to report that Crowley’s very far from being a one-book wonder.

It is, Crowley says in his introduction, “a book made out of other books”, and it centres around an unconventional historian, Pierce Moffett, setting out to write a book about a different kind of history:

Whenever the world turns from what it has been into what it will be, and thus earns a different past and a different future,  there is a brief moment when every possible kind of universe, all possible extensions of Being in space and time, are poised on the threshold of becoming, before all but one pass into nonexistence again...then all the other similar disjunctures in time (for there have been several) can become visible too...

The particular “disjuncture” Pierce is most interested in revolves around Giordano Bruno and John Dee, sixteenth century Hermetic philosophers, astrologers and magicians, and around his obsession with the concept of Ægypt, a mystical realm with only a passing connection to the mundane land of Egypt.

This is not an easy book to read, containing as it does extended passages of metaphysical thought, along with entire chapters from the work of a fictional author of historical novels, Fellowes Kraft, whose spiritual journey seems to mirror Pierce’s own.  Kraft writes about Bruno, Dee and even a young Will Shakespeare, moving gradually from lively historical romance to an examination of the clash between the old world and the new (which is also the even older) in the sixteenth century.

In the historical sections, we see Dee and his assistant communicating with angels and Bruno being guided by a young man who might be Hermes, but there’s very little overt fantasy in the contemporary chapters.  Most of this concerns Pierce’s life, first in New York City, then in a rural region called the Faraway Mountains (I assume these to be fictional, though I’d be fascinated to be proved wrong) where he interacts with a rich array of local characters, some of whom have their own point-of-view scenes.  In some ways, the books would work almost entirely as a blend of country life and academia.

Nevertheless, this is unmistakably a fantasy novel, and magic permeates it, even if it’s mostly hidden just under the surface, just as it is for much of Little, Big.  Along with Pierce’s lovers and colleagues, along with the inhabitants of the Faraways, The Solitudes is peopled by the scattered inhabitants of Ægypt, the signs of the zodiac, the spirits of the planets, the decans of Hermetic lore, angels, gods and dæmons, and the story’s progress is controlled by the twelve houses of the Moon.

The book’s obsessions remind me a little of Mary Gentle, one of my favourite authors, in particular the Hermetic lore (which features especially in Rats & Gargoyles) and the concept of history’s mutability (the central theme of Ash: A Secret History).  The two authors’ approaches, though, are radically different, Gentle incorporating the themes completely into speculative stories, whereas Crowley takes a more academic slant.  If I were really pushed to choose one approach over the other, I’d probably go for Gentle, but I’d rather not choose.  There’s nothing wrong with loving both apples and oranges.

The Solitudes isn’t a book for light reading: it requires willingness to invest time and thought, to immerse yourself in his characters, his settings, his magic, his gorgeous prose, and not emerge for some time.  It also pays to have a dictionary at hand if, like me, you’re the kind of reader who joyfully welcomes the opportunity to expand your vocabulary.

There are three more books in the Ægypt Cycle, and I’m looking forward to losing myself in each one of them, as well as anything else I can find by John Crowley.

I don't have the means to award star ratings here, but it would be the maximum, whatever that is.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Evolution of a Map

Every fantasy world’s got to have a map, hasn’t it?  Some authors create a map in loving detail before they write a word and stick to it; in other cases, the map is simply drawn from information given in the book.  Sometimes, though, it’s a lot more complex.

The first map I drew for my world (provisionally called the “Travellerverse”) was a little map that covered some of the countries that The Winter Legend takes place in, although eventually the story spilled over the eastern edge, so I had to draw a slightly bigger one. 

Even so, it suffered from the problem most maps have – an edge.  I began to realise there were other lands, cities and peoples beyond it, and when I began writing stories about them, I had extend the map again.  This one covered an entire continent and the northern part of another; but, of course, part of a continent is no good.  What was down there, further south?  And what lay to the east and west?

As it happened, most of my novel At An Uncertain Hour took place off the map to the south and west, so more maps were required.  The two maps included in the book cover, between them, about half of the world’s total land-mass, but it still wasn’t enough.  I knew there were other continents off to the east, as well as chains of islands in the far north and south.  A couple of months ago, I finally took the plunge and drew a map of the entire world.

There were problems with this, though, the chief one being that the stories I’ve written about the Travellerverse cover many thousands of years.  Imagine trying to draw a map of our world that has to fit in the cities of Sumeria and the Egyptian Old Kingdom, along with the classical world, the middle ages, Napoleon’s conquests, the twenty-first century...  Well, you get the picture.

So I drew a rough outline.  Coastlines and rivers do change over millennia, but not drastically, and mountains hardly at all.  I indicated no forests and deserts, though, which are subject to alteration, and certainly no countries, cities or names.  The idea is that, now I have the outline, I can customise copies with all or some of this information for any era I wish to.

A larger image of the map can be found here.

So what do we have on the map?  The small continent in the north-west is most commonly known as Kaazhu.  Its most important historic culture is the Golden Empire, but it’s most important as the Traveller’s original home: he was born among those north-western mountains.  The population here are mainly what would, in our world, be called caucasian.

The continent to the south is Droivithi, dominated by the Lul Empire and the ancient city of Hafdosu, standing where the river flows into the big bay in the north-east.

Scattered out to the east are the Thousand Isles, sometimes regarded as an oceanic continent in its own right.  The very large island to the north of the archipelago is Eltava’s birthplace, while one of those small ones to the south is where the Traveller founded Assanara, the ideal city.  The population of Droivithi and the Thousand Isles are, for the most part, either tawny skinned (most like Native Americans) and a tan-skinned race somewhat like Polynesians.

The two big continents in the centre are usually referred to simply as the Northland and the Southland.  The westernmost part of the Northland – the area of my original map – has seen the Vuldesta, the Kyus, the Kimdyrans and the Terrliu successively dominating, and the large island to the west, of the coast of Kaazhu, is the Kimdyran colony of Amnien.  Although I haven’t written a story set there (though one is planned) two of my main characters were born there: Demolin Nardins, from The City of Ferrid, and Salsha Demnen, from the unpublished stories Mad Hofith’s Machine and Destroyer of Worlds.

The Northland has had its share of great kingdoms and empires: Greclisk, Dhirsha, Ananë, Klou-es-Thaal and many others.  On the isthmus that joins the two continents stands the city of Errish, which claims to have stood for ten thousand years.  Limited in space to spread out, Errish has soared upwards in great towers and down into a vast undercity.  The people of this continent are mainly “caucasian”.

The Southland, the home of the black people, was for a few millennia the empire of the Demon Queen of the South, whose fortress of Xar-Toren rose from the continent’s southernmost cape.  After her fall, great nations arose across the Southland: Qymssa, Hroidh, Sheith, Ario-ne and many more.

The east is the newest area for me: I have few names there, and I’ve only written a couple of stories that touch on it.  The northerly continent is sparsely inhabited, except in the south.  The yellow-skinned people who live there, called Kal’shaks among other things, also live on the islands to the south and east – and the corresponding islands in the far west (yes, this world too is an oblate spheroid) and even on parts of western Droivithi.  Eltava is half Kal’shak.

The south-eastern continent goes from sub-tropical to antarctic, but much of it is inhabited by a strange green-skinned race.  The Traveller visited their city of Fadao, in the north-east of the continent, in an unpublished story called Out of Mind, and found it one of the strangest places he ever visited.

So there’s a whistle-stop tour of my map.  There might not be much on it, but it’s the empty stage on which most of my stories are set, and to me it’s packed with far, far more than I could fit onto it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Better Name for Ug the Barbarian?

It used to be so simple.  Your fantasy hero was Ug the Barbarian; or, if he needed anything more elaborate, he could announce himself as Ug son of Og, or Ug of Barbariania.  The stunningly beautiful queen who first tried to trick him, then succumbed to his manly charms, could be called anything that sounded suitably sultry and slinky, as long as it finished with an a.  The captain of her guard, who was secretly plotting against them both, and the evil priest seeking to bring back a blasphemous god, probably both had some random Latin name.  Nome of them would have been seen dead with anything so un-chic as a surname.

Well, there have been historical cultures where that would have worked well enough, but they were usually cultures where only very local administration was needed.  Once records need to be kept to account for tens or hundreds of thousands of people, it wasn’t so simple.  Can you imagine how many peasants there were in mediaeval England called “John, son of William”?  It wouldn’t even have solved the problem to call him “John, son of William, of Nether Wallop”, since there were probably a fair few of them in Nether Wallop alone.

There’s a widespread but incorrect belief that no-one except the aristocracy had surnames in the middle ages.  In England, at least, the use of surnames began to filter down through the classes surprisingly early.  Thomas Becket (the à was a later affectation) was the son of a merchant, born in 1118.  In 1109, the abbot of Cîteaux was an Englishman called Stephen Harding – he must have been born not too long after the Norman Conquest.  By the 14th century, certainly, surnames were the rule rather than the exception at all levels of society.

The reason for this explosion of surnames was the English obsession with keeping records.  It’s been estimated that, in the year 1000, the English crown maintained more royal scribes than the rest of western Europe put together, and from around the 12th century onward there were manorial and court records kept that needed to identify people more specifically.  “John – you know, the one with the pimple on his nose” just wouldn’t do.

The custom of having family names has grown up independently all over the world.  China has had them for longer than most and puts the surname first.  I’ve heard it said, though I haven’t made enough of a study to know if it’s true, that cultures which value individuality more tend to put the surname last, whereas those that value family tradition put it first.  Then again, there are cultures that don’t have a fixed position for the surname.  I once knew someone (an Ismaili Muslem from India via East Africa) whose surname was the third of three names, whereas his sister had the same surname as the third of four.

The Roman patricians had three names: a personal name, a family name and a clan name, but were commonly referred to by one or two of them.  The variety in this can be illustrated by the three most important people on the Capitol on the Ides of March, 44 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar (known by his 2nd and 3rd names), Marcus Junius Brutus (1st and 3rd) and Caius Cassius Longinus (1st and 2nd).  And the emperors took naming to excess – as they took everything else.  The Emperor Claudius, for instance, was Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus.

Other oddities of naming having been used in different cultures.  Russian custom (pre-revolution, at least) was to have a personal name, a patronymic (son of...) and a surname, and who used which was closely dictated by etiquette.  If Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (Lenin’s real name) had been moving in polite society, he’d have been addressed officially as Mr Ulyanov (or whatever title was appropriate); his social acquaintances would have addressed him as Vladimir Illyich; and only his close friends and family would have called him just Vladimir (or, more likely, a diminutive form).

Naming conventions in fantasy worlds can be as bizarre and inventive as the author wants them to be.  I’ve used several, besides a number of cultures who simply have a personal name followed by a surname (or vice versa).  Aristocrats in Ananë, for instance, use the prefix ne or n’ to their surnames: examples include Lord nePardin and Estent n’Ashne.  A similar tradition exists in Greclisk – depending on which of the kingdom’s many people are involved, the more upper-class can be Farlas te Norrimon or Sokauni Olya-vi.  In Errish, on the other hand, all classes have a prefixes for their surname: ma Kharish, for instance, for a male and me Anshik as an example of a female surname.

Perhaps the most complex naming system I’ve yet used is for Hafdosu, and uses a system of etiquette similar to the Russian one.  One native of Hafdosu, for instance, is called Fel Arith Fugon.  He’s addressed formally as Lord Arith – this system isn’t class-based, though, so he could be addressed as the local equivalent of Mr Arith.  His acquaintances called him Fel Fugon.  Anyone close to him (assuming that anyone is) would address him as Fugon.  The first of the three names is always short, personal to the individual, but is never used independently.  The main character of the story is a foreigner called Salsha Demnen (personal and surname) and the locals have immense difficulty working out how to address her politely.

I’ve only used this system in one story, but I’d like to revisit it.  I also want to invent other bizarre naming systems.  As long as it’s something that could conceivably work within a society, it’s plausible.

And much more fun than Ug the Barbarian.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Publishing, Self-Publishing and Scams

There’s been a lot of debate online recently about traditional publishing and self-publishing.  Most of this has been constructive, but there’s also some misinformation flying about, whether this is from people with a vested interest in a particular sector, or from authors who’ve got the wrong end of the stick from being scammed in the past.  I’d like to go through the various options in, I hope, an impartial and objective way.

Few would disagree, I think, that the holy grail for any author is to land a contract with a major publishing house.  While it doesn’t by any means guarantee a place on the bestseller lists, that isn’t easy to achieve without a major publisher behind you.  Besides having the funds to support a substantial print-run, they also have extensive distribution networks, large publicity departments ready to swing into action, and the name to attract the attention of reviewers and booksellers.

The drawback, of course, is that few major houses will even look at submissions from an unknown author.  Though there are occasional exceptions, the only practical way to get such a contract is to be taken on by a literary agent.  This too can be difficult, but not impossible.

I’ve read some extraordinary claims online about the way agents are supposed to work: that anyone who gets a business card printed up can be an agent; that all they do is leech money from an author, offering nothing in return; that they’re really publishers in disguise, or that they’re actually working for a particular publisher.  There are, as in any industry, crooks out there posing as literary agents, and perhaps these claims come from authors who have fallen into the clutches of such crooks.  None of the claims, however, are true of any reputable agent.

A good agent will have a background working in the industry, either for him/herself or for another agency or publisher, and will have a list of successful clients.  In the digital age, it’s easy enough to check up on them.  Besides studying their own website, google the name and see what’s being said about them online.  Pay particular attention to any discussion on the anti-scamming sites, such as the excellent Writer Beware.

A literary agency is, of course, a business, and its primary purpose is to make money.  However, the only way the agent can make money is if the author does.  An agent works for a fixed percentage (normally between 10% and 15%) of what the author makes and doesn’t make a penny unless there’s money coming in.  The golden rule in all sectors of publishing is that money always flows towards the author, not away.  If any agent or publisher (other than an avowed self-publisher) asks for money up front, do a quick about-turn and beat it.

In return for this, the author gets a range of professional services which, even if they could learn to achieve, would take away a considerable amount of writing time, together with a network of contacts and a reputation that only an already successful author could hope to match.

A literary agent is a facilitator, working for the author, and any hint of other interests should be treated with extreme suspicion.  S/he might, certainly, recommend using a professional editor, but a reputable agent will direct you to a resource where you can examine and compare the various editors available.  If an agent refers you to one specific editor, then it’s almost certain that the “editor” is the “agent” wearing a different hat.  This would be completely unprofessional behaviour.

If it proves too difficult to get an agent or major publisher, there are countless small-to-medium publishers out there who will usually look an unagented submissions – many of the best will be listed on sites like Ralan and Duotrope. 

These often use either POD (print on demand) or epublishing, both of which are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with self-publishing.  In fact, they are merely techniques which can be used by publishers, self-publishers and scammers alike to keep costs down.  POD is a method where, instead of committing in advance to a large print-run, a publisher can produce copies as and when they’re ordered.  Similarly, epublishing requires only the initial costs for editing, layout and artwork, and the result can be sold however many times it’s needed.

What both methods offer is a means by which a book can be published with relatively little capital, thus allowing these companies to accept books that, although they might be good, wouldn’t be considered viable ventures by a larger company.  These small publishers operate a submission and selection procedure, rejecting far more than they accept, provide a full editorial service, fund all production costs and distribute the book.  What they don’t usually offer is a publicity service.  Some might send out review copies, especially if they’re electronic copies, but on the whole it’s up to the author to promote their work.  Not an ideal situation, but better than any option other than a major house.

One thing that epublishing has changed is the range of lengths possible for publication.  In general, traditional publishing is unlikely to be financially viable outside the 80,000 to 120,000 thousand word range – unless, of course, you’re already famous enough for sales to be guaranteed.  With epublishing, even short stories can be individual books, while epics could theoretically be as long as you like.

Self-publishing, in which the author pays the costs of production and distribution, has been around for some time, and many classic authors self-published their first book.  Some authors prefer to refer to this now as independent publishing.  There are many areas in which self-publishing works very well.  An academic, for instance, may wish to publish a highly specialist work which is unlikely to sell more than a few dozen copies, but might be the very thing that will gain the author that lucrative professorship or research post.  At the other end of the spectrum, during the 1990s I put together several booklets of poetry, which I simply ran off from my computer and sold at gigs, and this worked very well.

In recent years, self-publishing has become considerably easier and cheaper.  Epublishing systems like Kindle and POD systems like Lulu make it possible for authors to do it themselves with no upfront costs, simply paying the company a cut of each book sold.  It’s also possible to publish work on your blog or website.

There’s both good and bad in this.  It certainly provides a means for authors to get work out to the public that might not see the light of day otherwise, some of it excellent.  I know of at least one case where a novel originally published on the author’s blog was picked up by a publisher and is now enjoying a fair degree of success.

Still, these cases are rare.  Like all the old Hollywood stories of actors (or more often actresses) being discovered in bizarre circumstances, they happen, but the odds of gaining success that way are probably considerably less than by going through the conventional route.

The biggest disadvantages of the self-publishing boom are the sheer volume of material being put out and the fact that, because there’s no quality control, the vast majority of it is stuff that would never stand a chance of getting published in any other way.  Even books that have promise often come over as very amateurish.  I’ve read self-published books by authors who have considerable talent and flair, but their work cries out to be edited.

The editorial process isn’t a luxury or an optional extra or, as some unpublished authors seem to assume, an insult to their talent.  It’s a dialogue between the author and a highly experienced professional who can take a dispassionate look at dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, and this can make a vast difference.  I’ve a reasonably healthy estimate of my writing ability, but I’d be very reluctant to allow a novel to go out under my name without having gone through the editorial process.

Of course, it’s possible to hire a freelance editor to provide the same service, but that’s expensive, and the temptation to go it alone is too great for most authors.  This gives self-publishing a (mostly deserved) reputation for poor quality.

It has another effect, too.  It can be distressing and soul-destroying to endlessly submit and be rejected, but it can also be very good for the writing.  Some publishers and agents will give feedback as to why they weren’t willing to take the work, and this advice should be treasured, even if it hurts at first.  Even when the rejection is by form, it forces the author to think about what they’re not doing well enough, and to strive for improvement.

The reaction of many authors now to receiving a few rejections is to forget about it and self-publish.  They’re never challenged to improve because they know anything they want published will be.  Comparisons are often made with the music industry, and I think the same plusses and minuses exist there.  The Beatles, for instance, became the great band they did not just through raw talent, but by playing endless sessions, to every conceivable audience, in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg.  If they’d simply been able to record in their bedrooms and put out the results on YouTube, they’d never have achieved the polish to become the legend they did.

This doesn’t mean self-publishing doesn’t have a place.  As in the music industry, established authors can buy back the rights to older, out-of-print books and reissue them under their own imprint.  Authors who can afford to pay for editors, artists and designers might produce high-quality books.  There are other possibilities, too.  I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up a collective of reasonably experienced authors who can offer mutual editorial support and self-publish under an imprint which could eventually build up a reputation for quality.  Even so, I doubt that I’d publish anything longer than a novella that way.  I want my novels to be published because someone out there loves them, not just because I’ve chosen it.

I’ve dealt with the publishing and self-publishing in the title of this piece.  There are, unfortunately, also scams in publishing, just as there are in every other industry, traditionally referred to as vanity publishing.  Unlike self-publishing, these outfits delude authors into believing they’re actual publishing companies and praise their work to the skies, but come up with various excuses to part the author from his/her money.  The traditional method is to call something like “subscription publishing”, which they assure you is normal practice, or make the author undertake to buy a certain number of copies, usually to be paid for in advance.  If the book ever sees the light of day (the likelihood is that it won’t) it’ll be of poor quality, and it won’t stand a chance of being reviewed or stocked by anyone.

Other scams include referring the author to a specific service, such as an editor, as described above.  This will be the same outfit in a different guise, and the service will almost certainly not be worth the paper it’s written on (or the pixels, as the case may be).

There are various ways of recognising scams.  Firstly, genuine publishers rarely, if ever, advertise for authors – they get more submissions than they can deal with, without having to do anything.  Secondly, anyone who tries to get you to pay them money for the publication process isn’t to be trusted.  And thirdly, information about scammers can be found all over the internet.  Several sites exist primarily to give information about these – Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors are perhaps the best known, but there are others also doing sterling work.

Recently, the scammers have began to fight back.  A bizarre website called The Write Agenda is making a concerted attempt to impugn the integrity of everyone involved in exposing scams, and has started a “boycott list” of anyone they see as a threat to themselves, encouraging book-burnings of the authors on it.  Hopefully, this piece will get me onto the list – I’d be honoured to be included in such great company.  Essentially, believe nothing they say.  Their “information” is absurd, and all they’re defending is their right to steal your money.  A thread about them can be found on the Writer Beware blog.

So, whether you choose to go for an agent and a major contract, a smaller POD or epublisher, or for the more responsible methods of self-publishing, good luck in your ventures.  And stay safe from those trying to scam you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What Is Fantasy?

What is fantasy?  Well, we all know, don’t we?  At least, we know when we’ve  read a fantasy novel, but that’s not quite the same.  This article was inspired by a discussion on the excellent, and I thought I’d try to go into some detail about my thoughts.

In one way, it’s irrelevant.  There’s good fiction and bad fiction, and quite a large proportion of good fiction (though by no means all) resists being pushed into convenient pigeon-holes and left there.  When I start with a blank sheet of paper (or more likely a blank Word file) I’m not thinking “how do I make sure this is fantasy?”  I’m thinking “how do I make this as good as I can?”  The fact that it usually comes out as fantasy is my personal taste.

Defining fantasy, or any other type of fiction, is descriptive, not prescriptive.  Its primary purpose is for marketing, as a shorthand for saying that this book contains X, Y and Z which, if it’s well written, I usually enjoy, rather than U, V and W, which I can take or leave.  Once we move into “you must include X, Y and Z, because you’re writing fantasy,” we’re descending very quickly into formula fiction.

I’d say that the primary division in fiction is between speculative fiction (including fantasy) and realistic fiction, although even here there are overlaps, such as some kinds of magic realism.  In medieval Iceland, one of the world’s great fiction-producing cultures, the primary division for narrative was between “true-seeming sagas” (including both realistic fiction and historical and biographical narratives) and “lying sagas” (fantasy – “lying” didn’t have a particularly negative connotation and only signified something unbelievable).

Speculative fiction incorporates the broad sub-categories referred to as science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror (as opposed to stories of torture and serial killers, which are really extreme thrillers) and incorporating genres that don’t quite fit into any of those three, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, alternative history and slipstream.  It should be noted that none of the three sub-categories should really be referred to as genres – fantasy, for instance, incorporates a number of distinct genres, such as sword & sorcery, epic fantasy and paranormal romance.

It might be said that realism seeks to mirror the real world as it is, while speculative fiction seeks to extend experience beyond the real world.  At first sight this seems reasonable, but it raises a fundamental problem: what is the real world?  In the Icelandic example above, for instance, “lying sagas” told of gods and dragons and dwarves and enchanted hoards, but any “true-seeming saga” could include elements like ghosts and curses.  To those who wrote and read the stories, after all, these were simply part of the real world as it was.

These problems aren’t restricted to ancient cultures, though.  A fair proportion of people in western, developed countries believe in ghosts, for instance.  (For the record, my response to that question would be “it depends what you mean by ghosts.”)  If I write a ghost story, does it count as speculative to the sceptics and realistic to the believers?

It goes beyond that, though.  I’d contend that all fiction, and probably most non-fiction narrative, too, is set in an imaginary world.  Most of these fictional realities, as I call them, are very like the world we see around us, but each is filtered through a specific person’s perceptions and assumptions, as well as the needs of the story s/he’s writing.

To take an example, two authors might write stories about a maverick cop who ignores the rules in pursuit of suspects.  In one story, this will enable him to protect society against dangerous criminals, despite the bleeding-heart liberals who protect the bad guys.  In the other, he’ll destroy innocent lives by riding roughshod over rules that are there to protect basic rights.

The difference between these two stories isn’t a random issue about what happens in it.  They take place in different realities, where the way the author sees the situation (or chooses to see it) actually is the way the world works.  All authors of fiction, and many journalists, historians and others, consciously or unconsciously create a world in which the story they wish to tell will work.  Fantasy writers are just honest about it.

So, at what point does the invention become speculative – or fantasy?  Perhaps we could say that a story becomes speculative if it includes a component or event that couldn’t happen in the real world, either present or historic – but then we’re back to the problem that there isn’t a consensus about that.  There are also many kinds of realism and lack of it.  Poor examples (though certainly not all examples) of genres such as romance or thriller, and certainly TV soap operas, are rife with characters behaving in ways no human ever has behaved or ever will.  Does that make them fantasy?

It’s also possible to write a story in which the plot as a whole relies so much on coincidence that it’s difficult to believe that such a sequence of events could actually happen.  Some of Dickens’ novels fall into this category, for instance – without needing to bring up the plain fantasy of A Christmas Carol.  Nevertheless, if we examine each individual event, we’d be hard put to find a single non-realist link in the chain.

Perhaps the best way of defining it is that realism includes only types of event which the current state of science could confidently acknowledge as possible.  If a narrative includes events that rely on collective belief or suspension of disbelief, it should be counted as speculative fiction.  Individual knowledge or belief doesn’t apply here.  On a personal level, I only believe that Australia exists, since I haven’t directly experienced it.  On the other hand, someone might know that ghosts exist through direct experience.  Nevertheless, as far as the human collective is concerned, Australia is a proven fact, while ghosts are a working hypothesis, which may or may not be proved one day.

So what does speculative fiction include that realism doesn’t?  If it’s science fiction, it may include the assumption of scientific laws that may be true but haven’t been shown to be so, or else the effect of scientific laws being different from those we know.  Horror may involve supernatural beings, magic or curses working, or different planes of existence.  Both alternative history and steampunk involve the world having developed in a different way from the one we know.

Fantasy can incorporate most of these – especially magic – as well as other elements such as worlds like our own that aren’t speculated as being reachable.  Perhaps the difference between fantasy and the other types of speculative fiction is that it has no need to explain.  Science fiction postulates laws of nature to underpin the events.  Horror explains less, but it requires the reader to believe, even if only by suspension of disbelief, that the magic or supernatural beings fit into the world as we know it.  Alternative history relies on defining the point of divergence.

Fantasy sometimes explains itself, of course.  As I pointed out at the start, defining types of fiction is a matter of convenience, not of necessity, and it pleases some fantasy writers to explain how the fantasy works; but that’s an extra.  Fantasy asks not “how could this happen?” but “what would it be like if this could happen?”  At root, fantasy isn’t about the magic, or the dragons, or the exotic worlds: it’s the question “what if?”

Then again, perhaps we could just say that fantasy is Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, Songs of Ice and Fire, Perdito Street Station and things like that.  That’s a much easier answer.