Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fantasy Settings

All fiction – or most, at least – needs a setting, and the choice of where the story’s going to unfold can play a large part in its success or failure.  What would Ulysses have been like if it hadn’t been set in Dublin, or To Kill a Mockingbird anywhere other than Alabama?  Probably not the classics they are; but still, Joyce and Lee had it easy, by having ready-made locations they already knew.  Not all books have such tailor-made settings, but it’s largely a matter of choosing from a finite list.

Fantasy’s another matter, not only because (with the notable exception of contemporary fantasy) the author must create somewhere for the story to play out, but because there are so many choices of how to approach this creation.  Should it be in the remote past or future?  Through a magic wardrobe?  Or even on the back of a giant space-turtle?

All of these and far more have been used by the great fantasy authors of the past and present, but in the earliest works of fantasy, it was easy enough.  If you wanted your hero to encounter gods, monsters and wonders, you just had to send him into distant parts of the world, preferably making sure this all took place a few centuries ago.  Anything could happen.

This served for authors from Homer to Mallory, but a problem was gradually growing – as readers became more knowledgeable of distant countries and about the past (which, as we know, is another country too) the suspension of disbelief became harder.  Not impossible, and it’s still not (the land of Oz is only a cyclone away from Kansas) but harder.  Where else could fantasy stories be set?

Dreams and visions were used by writers as diverse as George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll, but that could only go so far.  A better solution was simply to have a setting based on the real-world past, but not actually that past, as William Morris did in his fantasy novels and, to a lesser extent, Lord Dunsany did in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.  James Branch Cabell worked a compromise between this and the old method by giving his stories a pseudo-historical setting, but letting his characters wander off the map into countries that never existed.

Lord Dunsany was perhaps the first to create a world for his stories that had no relation at all to our own, first in The Gods of Pegana (more a formal mythology than stories) and later in tales set in the same world.  This kind of setting needs and offers no excuse: it merely exists, and the reader accepts that or not.  It’s perhaps the purest kind of fantasy creation, and can be found in settings as diverse as Leiber’s Nehwon and the world of Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire.  It’s very common in modern fantasy, and is also the type of setting I mainly use – so perhaps I’m biased.

This solution doesn’t suit everyone, though, and one of the earliest alternatives to be used was to establish that the fantasy world was another planet, often featuring an Earth character travelling there.  This, obviously, overlaps with SF, but the “sword & planet” style of fiction pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs belongs more to the fantasy tradition than to SF, as does David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus – although Lindsay gains SF points for speculating that his planet orbits twin suns.

The planetary setting, though, is often nominal, as in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which is supposedly set on Mercury, even though the place is remarkably earthlike, and the characters quote from Greek and Renaissance poets.  Or else it has no specific location in space, as with Pratchett’s Discworld.

For the fantasy author who doesn’t care for anything as literal as another planet, there’s always the possibility being reached by magic, of one kind or another.  This was common in the tradition of fantasy started in the 1940s by the American magazine Unknown, where real-world characters get transported to some world or other, usually with a specific quirk: a world based a particular author’s work, a world where only primary colours exist, or something of the kind.

The magical portal most fantasy readers know, of course, is the wardrobe into Narnia.  In fact, the wardrobe is only used in one book – in others, it’s coloured rings, a painting, or just Aslan’s call.  Nevertheless, the advantage of the world through a magic portal is that the reader is introduced to it by someone who’s just as bewildered, just as much an outsider.

Of course, the fact that two worlds exist with a portal in between leads to the inevitable question – are there more?  Lewis played with this idea in The Magician’s Nephew, and Andre Norton took it further in her Witch World series.  This starts with a man from our world going through a portal to the witch world, and the first two books are largely from his point of view, but several other worlds figure in the series, either as the source of attacks or strange places that characters stumble into through magical traps.

Michael Moorcock developed this concept to its logical conclusion in his Eternal Champion mega-series by importing from science the concept of the multiverse: an infinite series of worlds that might be different from each other in one tiny detail, or might be unrecognisable.  Moorcock linked all these up, not only by having events, characters and ideas reflecting and echoing from one world to another, but also by having characters who can slip between worlds and guest-star in each other’s stories.

A simpler solution is to set the story in either the remote past or the remote future.  The two best-known cases of the former are Tolkien and Howard.  They approached the concept in different ways, but the idea is the same.  Howard superimposed the lands of his Hyborian Age onto the map of modern Europe, proposing a prehistoric civilisation which, among other things, reflected his concept of racial development (a model finally blown out of the water by genetic profiling).

Tolkien, by contrast, just tacitly portrayed his Middle Earth as being our world at some stage of the remote past.  It’s tantalising to try to find direct parallels, both on the map and in the history (I’ve worked out, for instance, that the War of the Ring must have been fought somewhere between 6500 and 6000 BC) but that kind of thing is beside the point.  Tolkien was creating a mythology for the modern world, not attempting to write a speculative history.

Like other planets, setting a story in the future seems to belong more in SF, but quite a number of fantasy authors have used it, starting with William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land in 1912, and including Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and Terry Brooks.  Many, though not all, of these are set on the Earth in its last days.  Even more than the distant past, the far future gives the author a virtually free hand, since both the Earth itself and its people (if any) would be unrecognisable after the billions of years needed to bring it close to extinction.

On the other hand, some fantasy authors prefer to stay closer to home.  Besides straightforward contemporary fantasy, whether it’s urban, paranormal or any other kind, a number of stories are set in specific mythical or legendary settings, including the Norse mythology of Poul Andersen’s The Broken Sword and Evangeline Walton’s series based on the Welsh Mabinogion.  And, of course, Arthurian legend, whether it’s the Celtic Arthur of Marion Zimmer Bradley or the medieval Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.

This is only a very brief survey of the way fantasy settings have been used in the history of the genre, but I think I’ve covered the basic types.  Of course, that almost guarantees that someone will come up with a category I’ve missed, or that the next great fantasy bestseller will have a setting unlike anything seen before.

I think, though, that these eleven are the main groups: the contemporary world; the variation on history; the existing myth; the real-world variant; the standalone world; the planet; the world through a portal; the multiversal world; the remote past; the remote future.

If anyone knows better, please enlighten us.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Get Writing 2012

This Saturday (11th February) was Get Writing 2012, organised by the Verulam Writers Circle and held at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield.  This is the third year I’ve attended the event, and I’d definitely say it was the best yet.  Everything seemed to run smoothly (to appearances, at least, whatever frantic efforts were happening behind the scenes).  The speakers were varied and entertaining and the workshops – at least the two I attended – were excellent.

We began in a large lecture theatre with a panel on Non-fiction in the Modern Marketplace which, as might be expected, was a varied group, with Adrian Magson (a wide range of articles, besides his crime fiction), David Lindo (the “Urban Birder”), and Mike French (editor of The View From Here literary magazine).  The fourth member was meant to be Marc Alpin, founder of the Fantasy Faction website – I was looking forward to seeing him, as I’ve only ever “met” him online, but unfortunately he’d been forced to cancel.  VWC’s Nick Cook stood in, though, and made an excellent substitute.  The discussions were lively and informative, and the most interesting piece of advice I came away with was that an article should tell a story and be structured very much like a story.

Many of the workshops and seminars that made up the rest of the morning were so tempting I wished I had Hermione’s time-turner from the Harry Potter books, so I could fit in more than the two I had time for.  I settled for Weird and Wonderful, given by Jonathan Pinnock (author of Mrs Darcy Vs the Aliens, which I brought and got autographed, complete with tentacle) in which we explored using random prompts to produce a surprising range of very left-field stories – my second attempt was written from the POV of a frozen loch.

The second was given by MD Lachlan/Mark Barrowcliffe, who writes fantasy and contemporary fiction under his two names.  In this, we brainstormed the plot of a novel in an hour – starting, interestingly, in the sewers.  As more of a “seat of the pants” writer than a plotter, it was fascinating to see the structure unfold so quickly, and realise what a difference there is between laying down a basic plot and getting hung up on details.

A buffet lunch was provided, as part of the price, with plenty of opportunity to socialise with other attendees and speakers – there was no artificial division or standoffishness.  After lunch, we had pitch sessions with a range of agents and editors: three and five minute pitches, as well as, for the first time, ten-minute “Facetime” sessions throughout the day.  I pitched to agent David Headley, whose relaxed manner and to-the-point questions made him very easy to pitch to.  He took my synopsis and sample chapters – which is a long way from an acceptance, of course, but I’m keeping all fingers and toes crossed.

For those who weren’t pitching, novelist Sarah Duncan was giving a talk called Mind the Gap.  I was pleased that, since I had my pitch session early, I was able to make it for a good deal of this, which had some excellent advice on handling plots and characters.

Following the judging and presentation of prizes for the Get Writing Short Story Competition, Barry Cunningham gave the keynote speech, with questions and answers.  Besides a varied career, mostly in children’s fiction, that has ranged from dressing up as a giant puffin, to working with Roald Dahl, to running Chicken House Publishing, Barry will be eternally remembered as the editor for Bloomsbury who accepted a first novel called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when everyone else in London had turned it down.  His talk was highly entertaining, and he gave some informative answers to questions, including his thoughts about self-publishing and the difficulty for good self-published ebooks to “break through the noise”.  Apparently, he puts his insight that kids were going to love the boy wizard down to his time as the above-mentioned puffin.

The last two sessions were both excellent panels, the first on The publishing arc, from writer to publisher, the various phases being represented by urban fantasy author Suzanne McLeod, literary agent Jane Judd, Lee Harris, editor at Angry Robot, and Donna Condon, senior fiction editor at Piatkus.  The second, Ask the agents and editors, had David Headley, Barry Cunningham and Donna Condon, along with Philippa Pride, who among many other achievements is Stephen King’s British editor and Michael Rowley, SFF editor at Ebury.

Both sessions prompted many fascinating questions, well answered.  A recurring concern was with the impact of ebooks on the publishing scene, and it was encouraging to see these editors and agents mainly optimistic.  There seems no doubt that epublishing is going to change the face of the publishing and reading process, though perhaps not quite as completely as some of its prophets are suggesting.  One very interesting suggestion was that epublishing, which many of the large houses are taking very seriously, might actually enable them to take more risks with new authors, since publishing work as an ebook first would be relatively cheap, compared with a print-run.  Perhaps the future isn’t with self-publishing.

And that was the end, except for the most important part of the day – retiring to the student bar, to talk and meet people.  I’ve been focusing on the formal programme, but Get Writing is at least as much about personal interactions.  I met and talked to numerous writers, all of whom had interesting insights, and even met a potential new member for my local writers’ group.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both of the other Get Writings I’ve attended, but this one surpassed them both.  Every session flew past and was over far too soon, and everything seemed smoother and easier than before.  Every single speaker – at least, those I was present for – was interesting and well worth listening to.

Complaints?  Well, they could have ordered up better weather – I almost froze getting there in the morning.  I trust they’ll have a word with the powers that be for next year.  That’s about it.

I’m already looking forward to Get Writing 2013.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?  It’s a debate that’s been raging for well over a century, and a recent film has stoked it higher.  Was it Sir Francis Bacon?  Christopher Marlowe?  The Earl of Oxford?

Well, I should lay my cards on the table straight off and say that I’ve never had the slightest doubt that the plays were written by a certain gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare.  Not only do I find none of the other claims remotely convincing – I don’t even find the need to propose alternatives remotely convincing.

So where did these conspiracy theories come from?  In spite of (or perhaps because of) Shakespeare’s immense popularity with London’s theatregoers in the 1590s and 1600s, he was the subject of scorn and hostility from many other writers at the time.  Robert Greene, for instance, in the early 1590s attacked the upstart player who presumed to write plays, ironically giving us the clearest proof we have that Shakespeare was well known at the time as a dramatist.

The hostility was for two reasons: Shakespeare was an actor, a trade seen at the time as one step up from the criminal world, and he hadn’t been to university.  These were both heinous faults, and have given rise over the centuries to the myth that he was some kind of barely literate peasant, who couldn’t possibly have written some of the world’s greatest works of literature.

In fact, Shakespeare was middle class, and tending more to upper than lower middle class, at that.  His father was, until a financial crisis when William was in his teens, a prosperous Stratford businessman and a prominent figure in the town’s politics, while his mother’s family, the Ardens, were minor landed gentry related to many of the similar families in the midlands.  In fact, Shakespeare was related to several of the key figures in the Gunpowder Plot.

Nor was he uneducated.  His father’s status makes it almost certain that he’d have attended Stratford Grammar School, which had a high reputation for the quality and rigour of its teaching.  While there’s no proof of how proficient a student Shakespeare was, there’s no mystery about where the classical learning shown in the plays and poems came from.

Under normal circumstances, he’d have gone to university in his mid teens, but that coincided with his father’s bankruptcy, and there’s no reason to suppose the omission had any reflection on his educational standard.  Even Ben Jonson’s slight bitchy comment (uncharacteristic, as he generally admired Shakespeare) that he had “little Latin and less Greek” actually shows that he was far from uneducated.

This particular myth has been fuelled by misunderstanding about the state of literacy at the time.  Much has been made of the fact that he used several spellings of his own name, but this was true of most educated people in his day.  Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, was fairly indifferently Lord Burleigh, Lord Burghley, or Lord Burley.  Standard spelling didn’t become the rule until the 18th century.

What of the main pretenders?  On the face of it, Christopher Marlowe seems the most likely, since he was a great dramatist himself.  The theory is that Marlowe’s death in a tavern brawl was a cover for his activities as a government agent, and that he continued writing in secret, using Shakespeare’s name as a front.

There are a few problems about this.  It’s certainly true that the tavern brawl robbed us of a mature writer who might have given Shakespeare a run for his money, but there’s very little similarity between their styles.  Shakespeare had written a number of his early plays by that time, which already show his embryonic qualities – subtle characterisation, a common touch and a strong sense of humour, even in more serious plays.  Marlowe, by contrast, favoured vivid, larger-than-life characters like Faustus and Tamburlaine and high-powered language.  And there was no sign of any ability or inclination to write comedy.

In addition, there would have been practical problems.  Unless Marlowe was hiding in the middle of London for nearly twenty years – unlikely – he couldn’t have responded as instantly to moods and demands as Shakespeare seems to have.  Twelfth Night, for instance, seems to have been commissioned for court with very precise requirements, and written, produced and performed within little more than a week. 

Bacon, too, shows no similarity to Shakespeare’s style in his own writing.  He was a major figure in his own right in philosophy and science, in addition to his career as a statesman, but he displayed none of Shakespeare’s inspired use of language.

Nor was there any reason for either Bacon or Oxford to undertake such an elaborate charade.  It’s true that, if either had written for the theatre, they would have to hide the fact, but that would have been easy enough.  Many plays were produced anonymously.  The cult of the theatrical writer started with Marlowe, but without Shakespeare’s personal success no-one would have thought it strange not to have known the author’s name.

If deception over the plays was unnecessary, it would be mind-boggling where the poetry was concerned.  Writing poetry, and especially sonnets, was part of a gentleman’s expected talents in Elizabeth’s court – men like Raleigh and Sidney gained credit, not lost it, from their poems.  There wasn’t a man in court who wouldn’t have sold his soul to have been able to claim Shakespeare’s sonnets as his own.

It’s been suggested that Shakespeare wouldn’t have had the political understanding to write some of his work, but that underestimates both the role of politics at the time and Shakespeare’s character and opportunities.  We’re accustomed to thinking of politics as something we really should take an interest in, but it’s a bit boring.  That wasn’t true in Shakespeare’s day, and it’s not difficult to see why.  There are consequences for us if we end up with the “wrong” government, but not huge consequences.  We might be more zealous about the process if, for example, the “wrong” choice meant we could end up burnt at the stake.

Ordinary people in 16th century England were passionately interested in the political history that had led them to their present day.  Much of Shakespeare’s history is based on the work of Holinshed, and a copy of his history exists with annotations that have been identified as Shakespeare’s handwriting.

The company Shakespeare wrote and acted with, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was responsible for court entertainment, were virtually the house theatre company at court.  He’d have been used to being at court – in the role of litle more than a servant, to be sure, but servants have always seen a good deal of what’s going on.  Especially if, as the author of the plays clearly was, they are obsessive observers of human behaviour.  Shakespeare would have known exactly who was who at court, and how everyone interacted.

Most of all, though, it’s quite clear that the plays were written by an actor, someone who knew inside-out what the people on stage needed from him.  He wrote perfectly for leads, for character actors, for bit-players, giving every one of them the opportunity to make the most of their time on stage, however long or short.  It’s been said that, too, that if an actor follows Shakespeare’s punctuation he or she never has to take an extra breath.  Marlowe might conceivably have had sufficient experience for this, but certainly not Bacon or Oxford.

All these three had their own achievements, especially Bacon in the development of modern science and Marlowe as a great writer.  It’s not their fault people centuries later have tried to ascribe someone else’s genius to them, but it’s certainly long past time to give up the snobbishness of the past and acknowledge that a middle-class, provincial boy grew up to be perhaps the greatest writer the world has ever known.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Shakespeare and Me

My story A Deed Without a Name is published today in Penumbra’s Shakespeare-themed issue.  I’m not going to reveal which play the story refers to (although the title might give it away) but I thought I’d talk about some of the experiences I’ve had with Shakespeare over the years.

I can’t claim to know Shakespeare’s works inside out.  There are thirty-eight plays acknowledged as being wholly or partly by Shakespeare (thirty-seven in most editions of the Complete Works, plus Two Noble Kinsmen) together with the sonnets and the narrative poems, but of those I’ve never seen or read ten.  Note to self: must do better.

A trace of intellectual snobbery makes me give myself bonus points for those I’ve seen on stage, but actually there’s nothing wrong with watching film or TV versions.  I’ve always believed that Shakespeare would be delighted with both media and would be eager to write for them.

Still, there’s something unique about being present for a great stage production of Shakespeare.  The earliest plays I recall seeing were at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London.  My parents, who had both been actors, took us to see both Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream there when I was quite young, although I only have very general memories of these visits.

A more awesome experience, when I was perhaps about ten or eleven, was being taken to see a production of Much Ado About Nothing, with Maggie Smith and Robert Stevens.  Without any disrespect to the Regents Park casts, this was an entirely different level, and certainly as good, in a different medium, as Branagh’s excellent film version.

Of course, we “did” Shakespeare at school.  Generations of kids have hated Shakespeare for the dull way he’s taught but, although our classes were in the traditional manner, I already knew how wonderful the plays could be and enjoyed reading them.  We studied Hamlet for A-level, and I went to two memorable productions within a year, both at the Cambridge Theatre in London.

The two Hamlets I saw were Alan Bates and Ian McKellan (the latter fresh from his breakthrough roles at Shakespeare’s Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II, both of which I’d seen on TV).  Of the two, I preferred the Bates production, which was lively and fun, bringing out the surprising amount of genuine comedy in the play.  The McKellan version, by contrast, was a serious, doom-filled tragedy, but both were excellent in their own ways.

The production I treasure most, perhaps, is the RSC’s version of Twelfth Night with Judi Dench as Viola and Donald Sinden as Malvolio.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Judi Dench was brilliant, but anyone who only ever saw Sinden’s highly mannered and over-the-top performances in TV sitcoms might not realise what a wonderful stage actor he was.  His final exit, promising “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you” is possibly the most memorable moment I’ve ever seen on stage.

I’m the non-theatrical member of my family, but I still managed a couple of small parts in productions at university.  In Macbeth, I played a minor lord called Menteith, who mainly stood around and had occasional lines.  In Julius Caesar, however, I played Cinna the Poet, who can be best described as a cameo role.  He’s the innocent bystander who gets torn to pieces by the angry mob because he happens to have the same name as one of the assassins.  I screamed a lot in that part.

I’ve been to a number of fine productions since the ones mentioned – though I’ve also missed plenty I’d love to have seen, especially in recent years – as well as many on TV and film.  I remember a spine-tingling TV version of Macbeth with Eric Porter (Banquo’s appearance at the feast was as gut-wrenching as anything I’ve ever seen in a horror film), and Laurence Olivier putting in classic performances in both King Lear and The Merchant of Venice.

Then there are the films.  There have been some great film versions of Shakespeare, as well as some that are less great, including a terrible Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 30s.  The ones that stand out for me are Olivier’s Henry V and Richard III, the Burton/Taylor version of The Taming of the Shrew, and Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V and Hamlet (the only film version of the play I’ve enjoyed unreservedly) but worth a gold star for bravery are Anthony Hopkins’ film of Shakespeare’s gore-fest Titus Andronicus and Derek Jarman’s bizarre reading of The Tempest.

I hope there’ll be plenty more – perhaps versions by actors just starting out that will put the productions I’ve seen into the shade.  In any case, it’s impossible to see too many Hamlets, Twelfth Nights or Romeo and Juliets.  And there are always those ten plays I still don’t know.

A Deed Without a Name Now Available in Penumbra

The February issue of Penumbra is now available, with my short story A Deed Without a Name as its featured story. 

This issue is dedicated to the theme of Shakespeare, and also features fiction by Stan Hampton Senior, William Meikler, Genevieve Taylor and Barry Rosenburg, along with non-fiction by Richard G. White, Lori Basiewicz and Celina Summers, and an interview with artist Rebecca Treadway, who designed the stunning cover of this issue.

Penumbra can be bought here for a mere $3.99 - or why not invest in a subscription for 12 issues of this fast-rising publication for $36?