Friday, August 29, 2014

Middle Ages? What Middle Ages?

There seems to be fixed idea that, at least until very recently, most fantasy has been set in a mediaeval-type setting. This is almost an article of faith to many people in the face of all evidence, and shows that they have very little understanding of what mediaeval* really means.

Some fantasy is certainly based on mediaeval Europe, from William Morris to George R. R. Martin, but it's only one of many models that traditional fantasy authors have used (though it's undeniable that most have been centred on Europe or the Middle East).

Tolkien is often cited as an author who uses a mediaeval model, but in fact there's very little mediaeval, as usually understood, in Lord of the Rings. The Shire is an idealised version of 19th century England without guns; Rohan is early Anglo-Saxon; the Dwarves are ancient Norse; Gondor has a distinctly Babylonian feel, although I suspect Tolkien was going for Solomon's Israel; and some of the other cultures, such as Lorien, have no real-world model.

Similarly, most of the pulp fantasy of the 30s and 40s, such as the Conan stories, tend to be set in a mashed-up imagining of the classical world and the pre-classical Middle East. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's environment, on the other hand, had a lot in common with the Renaissance Mediterranean. And so on. Some mediaeval influence was there, but it was only one type of setting among many.

The problem seems to be that it's often assumed any time before gunpowder is mediaeval, but really the term only refers to a few hundred years (for part of which gunpowder was in use) on one of the world's smallest continents. To give some sense of perspective, besides Europe, civilisation has existed (before modern colonisation) in Asia, Africa, North America and South America**, and the earliest known civilisation (i.e. people living in a city) was over 11,000 years ago in the town later known as Jericho.

In reality, the Middle Ages (also known as the mediaeval period) didn't exist. It was a sneering term coined in the Renaissance to dismiss western Europe between the fallen of the classical world (good) and the birth of the new age (nearly as good). In the same way, the sometimes exquisite art and architecture of the period was described as Gothic, implying it was the work of barbarians.

The period the Renaissance scholars thus consigned to the scrapheap actually covers many different cultures, over both its timespan and its geographical distribution, although there are certain generalisations that can be made.

There isn't even any clear agreement as to when it started or finished. To some extent, of course, all historical periods are just convenient places for historians to start and finish their books. Some periods have more obvious beginnings and ends, but it's rare to have such a significant change that people living at the time would notice it.

My own view, with all possible disclaimers in place, is that the Middle Ages (to the extent that they existed at all) started in 732 AD*** and finished in 1453. On a Tuesday. At teatime.

Everyone knows that the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. Except that it didn't. The Roman Empire had been changing and evolving throughout its lifetime, most obviously after the reforms of Diocletian (right) in the late 3rd century, and by this time it consisted mainly of barbarian warlords controlling their own territories and paying nominal fealty to the emperor. When the last western emperor was deposed in 476, they just carried on the same way, except that they paid even more nominal fealty to the eastern emperor in Constantinople, where the Roman Empire continued till the 15th century.

For the most part, the barbarian warlords were proud of being part of the empire — they fought the legions internally, as when the Emperor Honorius double-crossed the Visigoths and they besieged Rome, but they'd no wish to tear it down. Well, except for the Huns, but they were a rival empire, not a ravening horde.

Nothing substantially changed. Civilisation and culture had been declining through the later part of the imperium and continued to do so, but western Europe didn't really move on to anything new till the Frankish leader Charles Martel (below) smashed the Moors at the Battle of Poitiers in 732.

There are two reasons why this was crucial. For one thing, although Charles was never actually king of the Franks, his son was crowned and his grandson became Charles the Great — Charlemagne. By the time the Carolingian dynasty had played out, only a few generations later, the map of Europe had changed, the first signs of our modern nations were stirring, and the concept of empire had been updated.

The second reason was the reason why Charles Martel had won the battle: a radical new type of fighting-man he'd copied from the Byzantine Empire, called the knight.

Aristocrats in older civilisations are sometimes described as knights, but this is retrospective. The knight as we know him first arose in Persia, due to the introduction of stirrups, which made heavy cavalry possible for the first time. Unfortunately, the equipment and, in particular, the great war-horses were expensive to keep up. The Persians solved the problem by imposing crippling taxes on the cities, with the result that, when the Arabs invaded, the cities opened their gates and went over to a more reasonable enemy.

The Byzantines, learning from this, came up with a new idea: to give each knight a parcel of land and let him pay his own way. It was this concept Charles adopted, and so the feudal system was born.

The feudal system was, if anything was, the central institution of the Middle Ages, and any fantasy setting that doesn't have it can't be described as mediaeval. In reality, it was two separate but complementary systems. One was a contract the king made with his nobles and knights, whereby he granted them land and they undertook to fight for him when called on. In fact, many knights were more interested in running their estates, and it became increasingly common during the period for knights to pay money in lieu of service, which the king would use to hire mercenaries.

The other, which had existed since the later Roman period, was manorial serfdom. Serfs were distinct from slaves in that, though they weren't free to leave or refuse to work, they belonged to a manor, not to a person. They had rights, too, although that varied considerably from kingdom to kingdom. English serfs tended to have most rights. The feudal system wasn't used in England till after 1066, and many of the people's ancestral rights were restored a few decades later. Serfs in other kingdoms were usually a lot worse off, but the lord of the manor didn't legally have power of life or death over them. Though the question was whether anybody bothered with the law.

And what about the end of the Middle Ages? 1453 was the year that Constantinople, the last remnant of the Roman Empire, fell to the Turks. The immediate significance was that many scholars and artists fled to the west, fuelling the already growing Renaissance in learning and the arts.

In fact, the Renaissance wasn't a sudden development, and the Middle Ages weren't quite as bleak a period for learning as they're often painted, although certainly a low point. Knowledge had been seeping in, especially from the Islamic world, at that time the most culturally advanced civilisation in the west. Art certainly took a huge step forward in the Renaissance, but it's been suggested that the biggest academic change was that they started following Plato instead of Aristotle.

Besides the Renaissance, though, the mid-15th century marks a point where most of the characteristics of the age that followed were already being established. Gunpowder had come to stay and was making the transition from field guns to hand guns, rendering knights obsolete. Gutenberg was setting up his printing press in Mainz, and the voyages of discovery were well under way, with the Portuguese venturing down the African coast en route to India, leading the Spanish eventually to try another direction.

Social mobility was growing, too, as was religious dissent. Neither were anything like as absent from the Middle Ages as is often assumed, but both increased immensely after the Black Death. The mediaeval Church was either divided or powerless for much of the period, and there'd been radical preachers from at least the 12th century saying essentially the same as Luther did four hundred years later. By the 15th century, religious movements led by Wycliffe, Ball, Huss and many others became bigger and better organised. Luther was just the most successful of these.

There had been towns and cities throughout the Middle Ages, and industries had flourished there. It wasn't easy to escape from serfdom, except by going into the Church, but those who did had the chance of getting rich. Again, after the Black Death the feudal restraints became untenable, due to the shortage of manpower making labour a marketable commodity. The powers that be fought a long rearguard action against change, but it was becoming inevitable.

The Middle Ages were a long and varied period, even leaving out everything that was happening outside western Europe, and almost everything changed in their course. The armour worn by knights, for instance, went from ring-mail sewn onto leather to the familiar suits of plate armour (which were not too heavy to manoeuvre in), driven by changing weapon technology.

At any given time, none of the typical mediaeval institution were present everywhere, and some areas — Scandinavia, for instance — were barely affected till very late in the period.

So, if you want to create a fantasy setting "based on the mediaeval period", by all means do — you'll be in good company — but decide what you actually mean by that, and do plenty of research on the specific country and era that interests you. On the other hand, if all you want is for your hero to wield a sword or use a bow and arrow, you have an entire world and eleven thousand years of civilisation to choose your model.

* The original and most accurate spelling of the word is mediaeval, but medieval is now common and acceptable. Seeing the word (as I all too often have) spelt midevil makes me want to stick my head in a bucket of water and scream. Please don't make me do that.

** Pre-settlement Australia can't really be described as civilised, though that doesn't make its cultures any less rich and fascinating.

*** Yes, I use BC and AD, which have served perfectly well for the past 1500 years. Get over it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Interview on Daniel Ausema's blog

And, following on my interview with Daniel Ausema yesterday, today he's interviewing me on his blog. The questions were great fun to answer.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Interview with Daniel Ausema

Today, I welcome to my blog another contributor to the Unburied Treasures anthology, Daniel Ausema, author of Musa Publishing's Spire City series.

Hello, and many thanks for agreeing to be a guest on my blog. Can you tell us something about yourself — who is Daniel Ausema when he's not writing?

Thanks for having me here. I'm always writing in many ways, thinking about stories and letting the words and images bounce around in the back of my head even if I'm not actively typing/scribbling/tapping away. But to answer the question, I'm a dad. For close to a decade I've been staying home with my (now three) kids. Prior to that, I'd worked in education, especially what's called experiential education, which is things like high ropes courses and teambuilding exercises and other learning-by-doing programs about history and science.

How long have you been writing, and what have you had published?

My first publications were just out of college, almost fifteen years ago. Those were mainstream, literary works. For the past seven or eight years I've had dozens of short stories and poems published in fantasy, science fiction, and horror magazines and anthologies. And then of course I have the serial fiction project Spire City. More about that below. My work tends toward the artsy, literary side of things, atmospheric and lyrical, though hopefully not in an obscure or opaque way.

If there's one thing anyone who's read your work will remember, I think it's your strange and impossibly inventive settings. I'm incredibly envious of your ability to come up with these. Do they come naturally to you, or do you have to work hard at being weird?

Trick question, trick question! Hmm, well it certainly comes from the things that I enjoy reading. I do deliberately make sure I'm not turning down any idea just because it seems too weird. And also, when I have an idea that feels only OK, I'll push myself to look at it more closely, try to find an interesting angle or approach. Which tends to make ideas weirder. Whether that means it's natural or something I work hard at... Chicken first, or egg? I suspect the answer is, “Yes, both.”

And speaking of strange and wonderful settings brings us to SpireCity, your serial currently being published by Musa Publishing. Can you tell us something about it, and why you decided to go with a serial rather than a more conventional format? years ago, I had an SF novel nearly accepted by Aio, a small press that was making a name for itself with absolutely gorgeous print books. One of the publisher's comments was that she kept opening the files of each chapter I'd sent (on CD by snail mail back in those days) and imagined them as a Charles Dickens sort of serial. Unfortunately the press closed shop before we could finalize any contracts. But her comment stuck with me and made me wonder what it would take to write something deliberately for serialization, to try to take advantage of the different way of reading that would result.

To fit the Dickens comment, I decided that steampunk would be a natural extension of the idea, and I'd already written a novelette in Spire City. So the two ideas came together, and I joined that with a ragtag bunch of outcasts who've been targeted by a mad scientist's deadly serum. Spire City: Infection is their story.

I use television terms for the story (the original drafts actually had commercial breaks built in instead of scene breaks), though it was always written to be read, not to be a TV script or anything of that sort. So we've just finished the 13-episode first season. Which, if I understand right would be called a series instead of a season in the U.K.? And there are two more 13-episode seasons to go.

Yes, although season is becoming more common now. Whatever they're called, it's good news that there are more of them.

Your story in Unburied Treasure, A Map Is Not the World, seems to me to be largely about the differences and connections between concepts and reality, and this kind of playing with ideas also seems very characteristic of your work. Can you tell us something about the story?

The story started (quite a few years ago) with an image someone shared with our writing group as a prompt. It was of a person kneeling down while tiny skeletons fell from his? her? fingers. Around that time I'd just finished reading the novel Falling After by Paul Witcover, which alternates two storylines, one in the real world and one in a role-playing sort of secondary world that tweaks the standards of RPGs just enough to be fascinating.

I think that format is what inspired me to do the back and forth here, though I chose both storylines to be in fantasy worlds. There's a deliberate band-of-would-be-heroes feel to the group in the one storyline. And the connection between the two stories is never explicit but up to the reader to connect. The title, of course, is a reference to “a map is not the territory,” which was a sort of common phrase well before my time that I encountered in college classes in the context of the connection (if any) between words and the objects they refer to or signify.

So what about the future? What projects are you working on, and where do you see your writing career going?

Well, Spire City will be the big thing in the next couple of years. Season 2: Pursued begins serialization on November 28, with a new episode every three weeks. Then Season 3: Unwoven will begin a year later. I've also had one novella published in Musa's shared world, The Darkside Codex, and I hope to have at least one more come out. I also did some writing recently for a start-up card game company, which was a lot of fun. So I'd be open to doing something else along those lines, if something comes up.

Beyond that, I continue to write short fiction and poetry, and I have at least a couple of novels that I still believe in enough to shop around to agents and major publishers. A lot will depend on what if anything comes from any of those. At the moment I'm taking a short break from any big projects, but I've got a couple of ideas for what novel-length work I might begin writing next, in addition to all the revisions and rewriting of earlier things. Those ideas will continue simmering in the back of my brain for a few more months at least before I feel ready to write them.

I'll look forward to seeing where you go next. Many thanks, Dan, for coming on my blog and sharing your thoughts.
You can follow Dan's writing at his excellent blog, Twigs and Brambles, and find the whole Spire City series at Musa Publishing.
Links to buy Unburied Treasures can be found on this page.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Grim Gathering and Grimdark Fantasy

 A couple of years ago, I went to an author evening organised by Fantasy Faction which featured Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett and Myke Cole. I'd never read a word by any of them, but I was impressed by the way they talked about their books. Since then, I've read, enjoyed and reviewed the first books by Abercrombie and Brett. Cole attracts me less, not because I don't expect him to be good, but because real-world military stories aren't really my bag. I will try him, though — I may find him the exception that proves the rule. *

On Wednesday evening, Fantasy Faction organised a return event dubbed the Grim Gathering. Held at Waterstone's bookshop in Kensington High Street, this featured the original three, plus Mark Lawrence. Understandably, it was more important to have him than to keep the alphabetic theme going and get someone whose surname began with D.

The large space on Waterstone's lower floor was packed, and the authors were entertaining, especially Abercrombie. It was surprising, though, how few questions they could get through, with four people each giving full and informative answers. All the same, I felt we got a flavour of who each author was.

There was a good deal of discussion about the so-called Grimdark fantasy genre that's fashionable at the moment, with which all four are more or less identified. My reason for writing this is more to give some thoughts and reactions about the genre than simply a review of the event.

Grimdark, of course, is a convenient umbrella term. Like many musical trends (punk, for instance, a comparison which was mentioned during the evening) it lumps together many individuals who respond to a particular zeitgeist in often very different ways. Brett, for instance, disputes that his work is really Grimdark, and certainly The Painted/Warded Man ** seems to me to contain far more heroism than cynicism.

Although I've enjoyed what I've read of these authors so far, and intend to read more, I have two slight queries about how the genre is presented. Neither invalidates it, but the queries are there.

Firstly, a lot of use seems to be made of the phrase the world as it really is (or variations) to distinguish Grimdark from the more Tolkien-inspired fantasy of the 80s and 90s. This seems perilously close to the arguments traditionally used by those who want to insist we shouldn't read fantasy at all. We should concentrate on the "real world".

In any case, what is the world like, really? It's very easy to follow the news and conclude that the real world is all psychopathic killers, money-grubbing bankers and cynical politicians. That's a significant part of it, of course, and needs to be acknowledged by anyone presenting a broad view of this or any other world. But the real world also includes heroism, compassion and self-sacrifice: firefighters risking their lives to pull people out of burning buildings, or carers who dedicate their lives to looking after someone. I believe this side of the world needs to be acknowledged too, and can be writ large in fantasy as world-saving heroism and compassion.

The other thing that I find a slight annoyance is the perception that Grimdark is a startling new direction, and that all earlier fantasy was light and shining. Again, I'm reminded of punk, where the "year zero" attitude ignored the fact that there'd been plenty of punk before punk (come on, by what definition was The Who's My Generation not punk? Or Chuck Berry's No More Monkey Business?)

Cynical manipulators as fantasy heroes go back at least as far as Cabell's Jurgen. Conan (as originally written) was morally grey and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a deeper charcoal; Clark Ashton Smith's work was full of characters who would be very much at home in Grimdark, and E.R. Eddison was almost as Machiavellian as Martin. The trend intensified in the 60s and 70s through morally ambiguous heroes like Moorcock's Elric, Wagner's Kane and Donaldson's Thomas Covenant. And I have vaguer memories of more obscure "heroes" who made those look like shining paladins by comparison.

Then, from the late 70s, the pendulum swung to the optimistic and heroic: Brooks, Eddings, Weiss & Hickman and the rest. Even so, there were greyer authors like Gemmell, though it's probably fair to say the trend was a brightness that Martin — Grimdark's ultimate inspiration — broke through like a dark beacon.

Grimdark can perhaps be best seen as an unusually wide swing of the pendulum to the dark side, but not unique. The depth of its darkness can probably be put down to boundaries already pushed further in the modern age, although Lawrence pointed out at the Grim Gathering that horror has routinely included material for years that's far darker than anything he's done, without creating any particular comment. Nevertheless, it's not fundamentally a new idea.

Several of the authors on Wednesday made the point that Grimdark (however it's defined) hasn't by any means taken over fantasy, and that the genre is still a broad spectrum. I'd add the argument that there also doesn't have to be any absolute choice between positions on the spectrum. For myself, I've enjoyed Abercrombie and Brett, but I also still love Lord of the Rings. I get different impacts from them, and I've no wish for every book I read to affect me in the same way.

For my own writing, I probably fall somewhere in the middle, but I try to spread out a fair way on either side. I certainly don't have any time (except in comedy) for heroes whose strength is the strength of ten because their hearts are pure, but I suppose I'd characterise my favourite type of hero as an idealist with serious human flaws, who tries to do his or her best and sometimes succeeds. Not that I'm at all averse to the odd psychopath, or just an opportunist on the make; but I do try to balance them.

The authors characterised as Grimdark are important, and I suspect they'll be seen from the future as the defining fantasy authors of the twenty-teens, but there'll always be alternative fantasy visions for different tastes. And that's precisely how it should be. In the meantime, I'll read more by the authors at the Gathering and look forward to the next event Fantasy Faction organises.

* Going off at a complete tangent, I'd just like to clarify for anyone who's not already aware that this saying uses the old meaning of "prove" and properly means "the exception that tests the rule". Otherwise, it would be absurd.

** I'm not sure which to treat as the correct title. Although Brett is American, the book was published first in the UK as The Painted Man and subsequently in the US as The Warded Man. Even so, I find the US title far more convincing and appropriate (unlike, for instance, the ridiculous change from The Philosopher's Stone to The Sorcerer's Stone.)