Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Coincidences of War

A hundred years ago this Saturday, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (left) was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia. He was heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Bosnia was a part, although there was a strong movement in favour of joining Serbia. A group of young Serbian nationalists attempted to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, but the attempt was a failure. One of them, however, Gavrilo Princip, later found the Archduke's car again by sheer chance, when the driver first took a wrong turning and then stalled the engine. Princip took his opportunity and shot dead both Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.

Rightly or wrongly, Austria believed that Serbia had been directly involved in the assassination and declared war. Austria's ally Germany entered the war but, somewhat irrelevantly, promptly invaded Belgium. Since Belgium's independence was assured by treaty, an alliance including the UK, France, Italy and Russia declared war on Germany. Within six weeks of the assassination, all Europe was at war, and remained so for more than four years, gradually encompassing the rest of the world.

Or arguably, for the next hundred years. The War to End All Wars led, as Sellar & Yeatman put it, to the Peace to End All Peace, the Treaty of Versailles, whose provisions not only led directly to the Second World War, but also to conflicts that are still being played out in many parts of the world, notably the Middle East. Some historians talk not about the First World War, the Second World War, the Cold War etc., but the Great Twentieth Century War.

It might seem an odd way for a world war to begin, but there've been stranger flashpoints for wars. In 1739, a Royal Navy captain called Jenkins was captured by the Spanish and had his ear cut off. An outraged Britain declared what became known as the War of Jenkins' Ear. In 1618, the Defenestration of Prague (right) — the throwing of three imperial representatives out of an upper-storey window — sparked of the Thirty Years War, which lasted till 1648 (not a given — the Hundred Years War lasted 116 years). And, of course, the most famous war that may or may not have actually happened was started by the abduction of the Queen of Sparta. Jonathan Swift satirised absurd reasons for war in Gulliver's Travels, in which a vicious conflict is fought over whether an egg should be opened at the big or little end.

The majority of fantasy novels involve war in one way or another, but their causes are usually rather banal: a bastion of civilisation is threatened by barbarians, a tyrannical warrior-king wants a bigger empire, two dynasties claim the same throne, an Evil Overlord wants to rule the world simply because he's Evil… and so on.

As anyone who's studied history knows, the most common reason by far for wars is the desire for economic advantage. A country might want to control important trade-routes, dominate the markets in a particular area, or just have access to the rich resources of the conquered lands. The last was especially true of European expansionism from the 15th century onwards, in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The rise and fall of the Roman Empire provides an excellent example. In general, the Romans invaded far-flung lands because either they controlled vital trade-routes, or they possessed mineral wealth (that was certainly true of Britain, in particular its tin resources) or because it provided fertile lands to back up the populist policy of handing out free bread to everyone in Rome.  And, a few centuries later, the barbarian tribes who smashed their way into the empire did so because they wanted to share in its wealth. Not, as is common in fantasy, because civilisation was morally abhorrent to them. Most of them liked what they saw.

Of course, there are many other reasons why countries and peoples go to war: ideological and religious, security, revenge against old enemies, or just plain love of conquest and glory. Still, scratch the surface and you'll probably find economics. Alexander the Great (left) is usually portrayed as conquering for the sake of conquest, but the fact remains that the Persian Empire was not only incredibly rich, but also controlled the routes by which fabulous spices and fabrics came from the mysterious east. The Crusaders, nominally motivated by religious zeal, were after the same trade routes, as well as the riches of a civilisation beside which western Europe was a beggar at the gate.

The Second World War was certainly to a large extent an ideological war, with one side pursuing a concept of racial destiny, while other fought for independence and democracy. Still, part of what lay behind Hitler's expansionism was the idea of lebensraum, room for living, the historical German desire to annexe and move into the rich lands around them. The US-Japan part of the war, by contrast, was almost entirely a battle for economic control of the Pacific.

Economics rarely seem to make it into fantasy wars. Of course, we're not privy to Sauron's counsels, for instance, so it's possible that his aim in neutralising Minas Tirith was to take control of the Anduin, the most important artery for moving goods around western Middle Earth; but somehow I doubt it. Though there is a hint that Saruman's conquest of the Shire was partly motivated by a desire to control the supply of pipeweed.

Things don't seem to have got any more realistic in the modern, grittier style of fantasy, where war seems to happen simply because it's what you do when you're a powerful king or lord. You do, of course, but there are normally reasons for it.

There's a problem with war, though. (Well, there are a lot of problems, of course, but I'm talking about one in particular.) Wars aren't fought by the people who actually get rich from the trade or the resources, they're fought by ordinary joes who would usually far rather stay at home raising their crops or working in an office. Even if they're conscripted, they need to be given a reason to fight well.

The Trojan War (if it happened) was probably fought over control of the sea-route between the Aegean and the Black Sea; but that's not what you tell your soldiers. You tell them The filthy barbarians stole my wife — yours might be next, if we don't put a stop to it. The War of Jenkins' Ear was all part of the competition for control of the seas that had been going on between Britain and Spain since the days of Drake and the Armada; but the people doing the fighting would have been told of the outrageous way the Spaniards treated their prisoners.

And, if all else fails, you just spread stories about how generally barbaric and subhuman the enemy is. This was certainly true in the First World War, where "everyone knew" about the sickening atrocities the German soldiers committed (and, presumably, they "knew" the same about the Allies). Curiously, that seemed to be far less true in the Second World War. My parents, who were both in their teens when the war broke out, recalled that most people regarded the enemy as "the Nazis" rather than "the Germans". Perhaps there was already enough moral cause to make inventing one unnecessary.

The First World War can be interpreted in many ways. The historian A.J.P. Taylor argued that it was cause by railways timetables (which makes sense to anyone who commutes by train) by which he meant that deployment by rail, the state of the art method at the time, was already predetermined and was triggered regardless of the cause of war. Taylor drew a chilling lesson from that with regards to preparations in the Cold War.

Nevertheless, in hindsight war had been inevitable for a long time. The Great Powers of Europe were jockeying for position, and that meant primarily their ability to economically exploit the rest of the world, especially Africa and Asia. The logic of great economic and military powers demanded that they should fight it out between them, and only needed Gavrilo Princip's starting pistol. Franz Ferdinand was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

What Do I Call This Thing?

I hate finding titles for stories.  Many of my stories go through their entire writing process with a placeholder title (often just the name of the main character) and sometimes I'm still trying to find something good to call it so that I can submit the thing.  Occasionally it's different and the title just falls into place, but usually it's one of the hardest parts of writing the story.

So I hope you'll understand that I'm not pretending to give some kind of expert lesson on how to come up with a title (and if anyone knows of one, please point me to it).  I just want to discuss some of the problems I've had, and some of the solutions I've found — as well as a few examples from classic books — in the hope they'll be useful to someone.

Broadly speaking, there seem to be three kinds of titles: descriptions, allusions and quotes.  Literal descriptions are the easiest, when they work, but they can risk being flat and pedestrian.  They're best, perhaps, when they're both descriptive and evocative.  Lord of the Rings is just the designation of the main antagonist, but it's a haunting phrase and makes an effective title.  Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer is the name of the hero's sentient sword, but again it's a name that can send shivers up the spine.

Two of my available books have descriptive titles, though treated in slightly different ways.  The Temple of Taak-Resh is a light sword & sorcery tale set mostly inside the temple in question (Taak-Resh being the god it's dedicated to).  This was one title that gave me very little trouble.  Once I'd established the setting, it seemed an obvious way of evoking that slightly old-school S & S feel.

By contrast, The Triarchy's Emissary is descriptive (it defines the main character) but more mysterious.  The working title for this one, as far as I remember, was Assignment in Faiz (the city it takes place in) but that felt a bit clunky and gave the wrong vibe, more like a spy-story set in the Middle East than fantasy.  The Triarchy is something the reader learns about in the course of the story, and working out in what sense the character is its emissary creates tension.

The Treason of Memory went through its entire first draft, and a good deal of its revision, simply called Estent, the main character's name.  There seemed no obvious descriptive title, so I had to sit down * and work out what the thing was actually about.

For one thing, it was a political thriller, though in a fantasy context, about a plot against the kingdom, so treason would be a good word to get in there.  It was also about the main character's memory being tampered with, but there seemed no obvious way to link the two.  Except that he's been let down — betrayed — by something we're used to relying on.  The treason of his memory.  The phrase fell into place, and I knew I had the right title.

Steal Away appears to have been a little easier.  I used the main character's name during the first draft, but I seem to have found the right title as soon as I'd finished that.  This one is something of a pun.  The two central characters are carrying out a burglary so they have enough money to get away from the city they're in — steal… away.  It's also very possible that at the same time I was thinking of a line from Robin Williamson's lovely song "For Mr Thomas": Let us steal away whatever we're supposed to steal.  That can happen.

Sometimes, a title can have multiple meanings and be both a description and an allusion.  Return Switch, an unpublished story, describes a piece of technology (magical tech, that is) that's crucial to the story, but it also refers, quite separately, to something that happens at the story's climax.

In the 19th century and before, the literal title was most common (think of all the Dickens novels whose titles are just the main character's name) and it's still found widely, but the allusive title has become more popular.  An early example is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which refers to what's figuratively happening, rather than anything literal.

Sometimes, a title does refer to something physically and literally in the story, but its symbolism far outweighs its literal presence.  In James Branch Cabell's Figures of Earth, published in 1921, the main character does in fact obsessively make mud figures, but this is hardly the main plot.  More to the point, the book is essentially about how we obsessively create a series of fronts for the world to see us: It is the figure of a man, which I have modelled and remodelled, sir, but cannot seem to get exactly to my liking, as the hero puts it.

On the other hand, a title can refer purely and simply to the mood of the story, rather than the plot.  Perhaps my favourite example of this is one of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane stories from the 1970s.  Who would expect a straightforward (plotwise, at least) sword & sorcery tale to be called Reflections for the Winter of My Soul?  And still less for the title to work.

A third approach to creating a title is to use a quotation, which may mean something in its own right but gains far more significance if the reader understands the context of its source.  At An Uncertain Hour (a title the novel certainly didn't have in the earlier stages of its creation) is taken from Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the whole comparison between the Traveller and the Mariner is crucial to understanding the novel's theme.  On the other hand, it also has a literal aspect.  The plot jumps around between multiple time-periods like the Doctor on speed, and much of the time the hour really is uncertain.

I've used quotes for a few other titles (Ancestral Voices, also from Coleridge, and A Deed Without a Name, from Shakespeare) but this approach was especially common in the earlier 20th century, though it goes back at least as far as Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Gray). Well-known examples include For Whom the Bell Tolls (Donne), Tender Is the Night (Keats), Brave New World (Shakespeare), Of Mice and Men (Burns) and many more. A recent fantasy example is Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, a phrase taken from Homer.

Sometimes the meaning is clear enough even without the original context, but at other times it's completely incomprehensible.  J. M. Barrie's play Dear Brutus, for instance, has nothing whatsoever to do with Romans, or even with assassins.  It's about characters who are all unhappy with their lives and are magically given a second chance, only to find they make exactly the same mistakes again.  The title comes from the scene in Julius Caesar where Cassius tells Brutus The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Of course, this risks turning into an elitist guessing game.  In my case, I've tried to avoid that by quoting the relevant passage at the front of the book and giving all the information readers need to look the rest of it up.  If they choose not to — well, I can't force them.

There are a lot more subtleties than this in finding titles, but hopefully these ramblings might give you something to go on if you get as stuck as I do with them.  Fundamentally, though, any title (unless you're lucky enough that it comes to you fully formed) has to start with asking yourself what the story is really about.

Other than about four hundred pages.

* Most likely, I was already sitting down, but somehow we always have to "sit down and" do something intense.  I wonder why.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The idea of reinventing fairy stories is commonplace nowadays, but that's in no small part due to Angela Carter's slim 1979 volume The Bloody Chamber. It wasn't unprecedented, of course, but it took the whole concept into new territory.

I read and loved the book a few years after it came out, but I hadn't reread it until now, and I think I got even more out of it this time. These are far more than just retellings or updated versions. Carter is using the rich mine of fairy story to tell magical, horrific and thought-provoking stories for our time.

It seems to me that there are two predominant themes running throughout the collection. One, as in much of Carter's work, is the replacement of weak, passive heroines with strong girls or women who triumph through their own qualities, not through being rescued by a hero.* The other is the counterpoint between the civilised and bestial natures in humanity, a theme reminiscent in its contrasting interpretations of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf.

Each story is, to a greater or lesser extent, based on one or more standard fairy stories, and some of the originals get more than one treatment. Some have relatively recent settings, either late 19th or earlier 20th centuries, while others have more traditional settings but a modern sense of perspective and psychology.

The title story, and by far the longest, is based on the tale of Bluebeard, who deliberately married and murdered a series of wives. The original is a strange tale which many have suggested was based on the bloodthirsty Giles de Rais, a contemporary of Joan of Arc. However, there are distinct similarities to the ballad Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight, also known as The Outlandish Knight, which is found all over Europe and may represent the remnants of a prehistoric ritual of human sacrifice.

Carter approaches the tale as a classic non-supernatural gothic story, complete with the forbidding older husband, the inadequate young wife haunted by her predecessors, the ancient, ancestral home — and, needless to say, the locked door that she mustn't open but does.

On the face of it, the passive, helpless heroine doesn't fit the mould of a strong woman, but she does achieve a kind of composure in the face of what seems certain death, and the story's coda shows her having achieved strength and independence. And, perhaps most importantly, she's rescued not by a hero, but by her mother.

The husband certainly represents a kind of bestial nature, but not true bestiality. He's sophisticated, calculating in his atrocities, addicted to sadistic porn masquerading as art, and he uses specious philosophy to justify his mass-murdering.  This is the bestiality of the gas chambers, not of the jungle.

Two versions of Beauty and the Beast follow. The Courtship of Mr Lyon is a fairly conventional interpretation, although modernised (the trouble starts when the father's car breaks down near the Beast's mansion). Perhaps the most interesting part is the picture given of Beauty's seduction away from her promise, almost causing Mr Lyon's death.

The Tiger's Bride, by contrast, shows us a crueller, wilder version of the tale, with a contemptible father and a genuinely dangerous Beast. The ending, too, is a marked change, with Beauty finally rejecting the corrupt hypocrisy of civilised ways and learning to share the Beast's true nature. In this story, Beauty is used throughout as a pawn by the male characters, but finally proves stronger than any of them.

Puss-In-Boots provides a rare light interlude in the book. Told in the mannered style of a comedia dell'arte play, this has the resourceful feline servant conniving to allow his lascivious master to first enjoy, then to marry a beautiful girl tied in marriage to an impotent, misanthropic old miser — striking up a parallel liaison himself with the girl's female tabby.

At first glance, this seems rather out of place, with two male leads and the heroine used essentially as a sex object. On the other hand, she's no passive seducee — it's quite clear that she's as horny as her suitor, and she becomes a willing co-conspirator against the husband she's been sold to.

The Erl-King, by contrast, shows both running themes to good advantage. The eponymous character comes from Germanic folklore, though he's best known from Goethe's poem of the same name, and is usually interpreted as either king of the elves or the leader of the Wild Hunt. Here, he's an enigmatic figure, perhaps a spirit, perhaps a man, living in the forest. An impressionable girl is captivated by him but realises just in time that the birds he keeps in cages are her predecessors, and a cage is waiting for her.

This is obviously a metaphor for the prison of a marriage, which the heroine has the strength to escape, but the concept of the bestial is more contradictory. The Erl-King seems to be a figure of pure nature, and that's what attracts the heroine, but perhaps he has more of civilisation that it seems. His home in the forest is described as immaculately clean and tidy, while his habit of caging birds is hardly that of a child of nature.

The Snow Child is the shortest piece, barely a page long. It has some similarity with the very beginning of Snow White, but here turned into a study of Freudian jealousy. A feuding count and countess, riding on a snowy day, between them create and then destroy a girl made of the white of snow, the black of a raven's feather and the red of blood.

The Lady of the House of Love was adapted from a radio play Carter had previously written. A strange blend of the Dracula legend with Sleeping Beauty, this has the frail, beautiful daughter of Nosferatu trapped in her castle by a wall of vegetation, reluctantly feeding on human and animal victims that she only wants to love. An innocent young man, intended to be on the menu, gives her a kiss that, rather than waking, destroys her.

Perhaps this story is meant to represent the traditional captivity of women, which only destruction can cure. On the other hand, it's explicitly set on the eve of the First World War, so perhaps it should be interpreted as an beautiful but undead, sleepwalking Europe about the be blown away. Like the best symbolic stories, many interpretations are possible.

The last three stories deal with wolves, drawing especially on Little Red Riding Hood. In The Werewolf, the wolf turns out to be the grandmother herself, who is driven away and stoned to death. The story ends, rather ambiguously, Now the child lived in her grandmother's house; she prospered.

The Company of Wolves begins with a discussion of superstitions about wolves, briefly telling various tales of lycanthropy, before settling down to the girl taking provisions to her grandmother. She's characterised as just entering puberty, and her interaction with the handsome huntsman, who we know quite well to be the wolf, crackles with sexuality.

This child, though, is afraid of nothing, and she triumphs in the end not by destroying the wolf but by taming him, meeting him halfway to wildness.

The final story, Wolf-Alice, is the most obscure in origin, although it reflects various aspects of folklore. A feral child, raised by the wolves, is "rescued" and gradually becomes self-aware as she grows up (including a gradually developing relationship with her reflection in the mirror) without abandoning her wolf nature. This is contrasted with the vampiric duke whose household she lives in as a servant, who takes the form of a wolf to prey on dead bodies.

Alice is perhaps the most perfect exemplar of the book's themes. An independent, self-contained girl, she manages to balance the two parts of her nature to an extent that she even manages to redeem the duke, who represents human bestiality without the nobility of nature to offset it.

Several of these stories have been adapted into different media, but the best known is Neil Jordan's 1984 film of The Company of Wolves, written by Carter and Jordan. I rewatched this as soon as I'd finished the book, the first time I've been able to compare the two so closely.

Although the film is very much opened out from the nine pages of the story, I was surprised to find there was a lot less deviation than I expected from the original story. Several of the anecdotes told at the beginning are expanded to form episodes in the film, and the relationship between the child (unnamed in the story, Rosaleen in the film) and her grandmother, superbly played by Angela Lansbury, becomes an important aspect.

Nevertheless, it's Rosaleen's interaction with the wolf that's most important, and that's very closely drawn from the story, although the ending goes somewhat further, reflecting that of The Tiger's Bride. The whole film's dripping with sexual imagery, and the young actress Sarah Patterson, who appears to have only been twelve at the time, gives a stunning portrayal of a little girl on the brink of bursting out of childhood.

The film's wonderful in its own right, as well as being a fine companion-piece to the book, but it's the book I'm concerned with here. The stories are varied and intriguing in themselves, while maintaining a sense of unity, and they're mostly told in lush, evocative prose that evokes everything from the wildwood to the Paris opera.

With The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter set the bar for the re-examination of the fairy story tradition. A bar which not that many writers since have made it over.

Strong heroines aren't as absent in fairy stories as is sometimes assumed, but there's no doubt that overall they tend to be damsels in distress.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Interview on Lydia Kurnia's blog

Lydia Kurnia is the excellent fantasy writer and artist who provided the lovely illustrations (including the one above) for the recent anthology Unburied Treasures (links in a previous post) which includes my story Finder's Fee. Today, Lydia interviews me on her blog about the anthology, my books, history and grammar nazis, among many other topics.

The interview can be found on Lydia's blog.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Unburied Treasures: an Illustrated Anthology of Speculative Fiction

Unburied Treasures
edited by Erika Wilson
Illustrations by Isaia and Lydia
Available on Kindle from &
 Also available from Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, & Amazon (UK, US, Australia)
This beautifully illustrated anthology features stories loosely on the theme of "unburied treasure" from a variety of speculative authors, some widely published, others who should be. There are stories from Daniel Ausema, Barbara A. Barnett, Nyki Blatchley, Lindsey Duncan, Indigo Dylis, Lydia Kurnia, Jonathan S. Pembroke, Leslianne Wilder & Erika Wilson.
My story, Finder's Fee, is set in a version of the modern world that's been conquered by intelligent dragons. Humans are merely the servants of the dragons and their genetically engineered lizard people, and the world is run according to what dragons value. And, as everyone knows, what dragons value is treasure. They employ human Finders to sniff out unclaimed treasure, but one has his own ideas of how to exploit this situation.
Excerpt from Finder's Fee
            "Do you have an appointment?" asked the lizard at reception.
             "Well... not exactly."  This was all I needed, after weeks away and the long drive yesterday.
             The lizard fixed me with those unnervingly lidless eyes.  I tried to stare it out, but that was never going to happen.  "Not exactly?" it queried at last.
             "Well, actually, no.  No, I don't have an appointment, but Master Ssa'ath will want to see me."
             I could have told the lizard I was one of Ssa'ath's Finders and it wouldn't have dared delay me, but probably best not to.  The Masters all get twitchy about anyone knowing who their Finders are: afraid someone else will try to poach them.  It was easier in the long run to put up with the lizard's haughtiness.  If everything went to plan, it would be the last time.
             The lizard's impassive face expressed silent scorn at the idea that a Master would want to see a mere human, but it touched the computer screen a few times with its tongue and then nodded.  "Master Ssa'ath has a window in half an hour.  Ten minutes.  And if your... assumption is incorrect, it'll be your head in his mouth.  Please wait here."
             "Thanks," I said from habit, but it had gone back to its work and didn't look at me again.  I settled myself on a chair clearly designed for lizards.
             I'd visited Ssa'ath's offices a number of times, and the usual lizard knew me, though was no more welcoming than this one.  They always made me uneasy, right back when I was a kid.  There weren't many of them around then, but the Masters had begun genetically enhancing them, breeding faithful servants to replace the humans they despised.  Most of us never forgave the lizards for that.
             I hoped I was right in my assumption that Ssa'ath would welcome me.  The lizard's colourful expression was merely a saying, but you never knew with the Masters.  He should be pleased to hear my news, as long as he didn't guess my true motives.