Monthly Archives: October 2013

Good v Evil

To prepare for the upcoming World Fantasy Convention, Damien Walter recently penned an article on modern Fantasy in which he noted that the genre has changed since Tolkien was writing (nearly 60 years ago).

While exploring this utterly unremarkable idea Walter managed to make a few comments which  momentarily swept across the plains of social media, being widely condemned. I suspect some of that criticism was born of a defensive reflex ingrained into sci-fi/fantasy readers since high school and reinforced by those who continue to dismiss or demean genre fiction.  In other cases the criticism seemed to me to be a genuine misreading, or misunderstanding, of Walter’s point. I suspect he sees his article as being a largely sympathetic treatment of Fantasy and its audience. This is not how it was received, I think for two reasons.

1. The changing nature of the battle(s) between good and evil.

Walter says “It would be very easy to assume those books are just generic copies of The Lord of the Rings, cashing in on the apparently endless thirst for Tolkienesque fantasy…” and though he goes on to suggest that there is more to the genre now than such an assumption would allow, the damage is done.
Why is that the ‘easy’ assumption to make?
Do we assume of any other genre that it is merely reproducing the works of a seminal author half-a-century after that author’s success?
Do we assume modern Sci-Fi is just repeated re-workings of Asimov? That modern crime is merely derivative copies of Agatha Christie?

For Walter to make that assumption so easily, or even to acknowledge that others will, reinforces the negative perception of Fantasy that so many modern Fantasy writers have worked so hard to change. This attitude recurs in the following paragraph, where in celebrating Vance, Leiber, Moorcock and Gemmell, Walter says that their “remarkable novels… belie their origins in pulp fiction.” Here then is that condescending arrogance that ruffles the feathers of so many readers who are sick of being told that their preferred reading is somehow lesser, that Fantasy is (ironically) ‘unremarkable’.

Referring then to the successful authors of modern Fantasy (Abercrombie, Lawrence, Brent Weeks) he uses that lazy and ill-defined pejorative Grimdark. I have discussed the term before, as have others more qualified to comment than myself.

Walter claims that “while it claims greater moral complexity, grimdark fantasy frequently offers a disappointingly one-dimensional portrayal of the battle between good and evil, where evil usually wins because it is the only game in town.”
Nonsense.

What Walter fails to recognise is that the characters and worlds of Abercrombie and Lawrence (I haven’t read Weeks, yet) are far from mono-dimensional. Even to make that suggestion calls into doubt his knowledge of the authors he has named.
He then goes on to misdiagnose how the treatment of concepts of good and evil has changed.

Tolkien had a simple view of good and evil. A good race, or rather an alliance of good (white) races…

 have to defend their homes from an encroaching menace: the evil (dark) races.

By this world-view the enemy is utterly defeated when the leader is defeated. The battle between good and evil is fought between an army of each, with battle lines drawn, to the death. This is perhaps a view to be expected from a man who had experienced trench warfare; who had returned from the hell of chemical weapons to the bucolic surrounds of English pastoralism; who had seen all the power of industry turned to the destructive effort of war, and thus rejected industry as being itself destructive.

How could we, the modern readers, share this view? We are now more than a decade into the War on Terror. We have witnessed the fall of Sadaam, the killing of Bin Laden, Gaddafi murdered in a ditch by revolutionaries. We have seen Egypt fall and rise and fall again. Seen tyrants overthrown and replaced by corruption or chaos, have seen the empires of democracy spying on their own citizens. I cannot see a world in which good gathers its (white) people to its cause to defeat the encroaching evil (black) people. But that doesn’t mean that good and evil no longer battle.

Modern Fantasy does not show a world where evil is the ‘only game in town’. It shows a world in which the battle between good and evil takes place not between people, but within. Each character has good and evil within them, and each must allow that battle to be fought. In some evil wins, but not in all. Interestingly, the protagonists are seen by others as evil, perhaps even acknowledge that evil in themselves, but wish they could be better. The characters we hope to see succeed, Logan, Glokta, Shy, and yes even Jorg and Monza, (and why not throw Jaime Lannister in for good measure?) believe themselves to bad, but hope that they can be better. (For Jorg that hope comes late, and slow, and even as it comes he resists it – because he’s not one to be pushed – but it is there).

Sometimes these characters don’t achieve ‘goodness’; sometimes they are trapped by circumstance or history or any number of other forces, just as some good characters are corrupted, unable to maintain their goodness in the face of circumstance.
I want Glokta to succeed because I want for him the same thing he wants for himself, it’s just that he has given up on achieving it, while I hold hope. I want Logen to find peace because I want to believe that men can redeem themselves of past misdeeds, especially when those misdeeds weren’t entirely voluntary. I want Jorg to be a better person, because he’s not a very good person.
This isn’t to say that the battle between good and evil doesn’t take place. Many such battles are taking place, fought by independent splinter cells and sleeper agents, the battle-lines ill-defined and constantly shifting.

Which brings us to…

2. Fantasy is not just for boys.

It’s frustrating that this even needs to be said, but for Walter the success of evil he believes defines Modern Fantasy “says more about the psyche of the young male readers and writers who dominate grimdark fantasy than anything else.”

This is just so wrong-headed that I can’t even bring myself to invest much energy in the debate.
On Goodreads, the 5 star reviews for ‘The Blade Itself‘ include reviews from Maria, Kat, Inara, Annie, Faye, Sara and many other female readers. Likewise for ‘Prince of Thorns‘ we find Amanda, Rose, Natalie, Georgia, in the top dozen or so.
I could go on, but really – why bother.
As to only young men writing Modern Fantasy…
Ursula LeGuin, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Marion Ziommer Bradley, Janny Wurts, Anne McCaffery… of course JK Rowling. These authors aren’t mentioned as Grimdark, but I wonder if that’s because of how subjectively applied is the label. I do know that from my own experience in Australia I have met many talented women writing Fantasy and Spec-Fic. I struggle to believe that they are the exception.

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Genrecon 2013

Last weekend I went to Brisbane for the second annual Genrecon event.

It was my first time in Brisbane and the weather was perfect, just as the tourism board promises. Genrecon was set amongst the brutalist installations of the late 80s (Southbank was tidied up for Expo 88) and the cultural precinct was a great place to wander around nursing a coffee or a hangover.

Genrecon 2013 itself was, as 2012 had been, an amazing experience. Huge thanks to Peter Ball and Meg Vann and all the QWC ninjas for making it happen.

I came straight from the airport to the Opening Night Reception where I caught up with some of the 2012 veterans such as The Mercieca boys, Chris Andrews and others, and met several new and exciting young writers (like Chris White), editors, agents, publishers and genre-fiction lovers. Special mention here to the Romance writers,  some of whom I knew already, others of whom I met for the first time (such as Cathryn Hein, who was happy to talk footy with me). They were, universally, a pleasure to speak with.

On Saturday morning I made my pitch to Alex Adsett, agent extraordinaire. She was interested enough to request a partial, so I will be emailing that off this week. Having the pitch done early meant I could relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Scott Baker‘s talk on book trailers was (although I missed the start while pitching) a fascinating insight into how new or established authors can build a profile, or open themselves to a diversified market. His own example (for his novel The Rule of Knowledge was excellent. “It’s better to have no book trailer, than to have a bad book trailer.”

Patrick O’Duffy, Kate Cuthbert and Kim Wilkins dragged the workshop on mixing genre into the realm of Dino-erotica, complete with role play. “It’s easier to market a story that is at the centre of an established genre, but that’s not (an author’s) job. Just write the damn book and let the marketing department decide how to sell it.”

The conversation event with John Connolly was fantastic. He’s such a witty and entertaining speaker and shared a lot of wisdom about persistence, effort, professionalism and the need to finish things. “You will always be an amateur if you don’t finish things.”

The Kimonos and Cutlasses Dinner was great. Chuck Wendig gave a live action rendition of his famous “25 lists”. This time ’25 Reasons Why I Fucking Love Genre Fiction”, and followed that up with an interview with Kate Cuthbert that had the room in great spirits. Special mention here to the lovely Denise Rosetti, whom I met at GC 2012, an Erotic Romance writer who has been wonderfully generous with tips on writing craft and the publishing industry.

The post-dinner party was a great night. A chance to debate the relative merits of Kirk and Pickard with Kate Cuthbert (she for Pickard, me arguing for Kirk. Something surely must be said for romancing the unfettered masculine, rather than the dignified and refined. I saw Picard as too staid and paternal. She saw him differently. I think we decided on the terminology ‘Gent in the street/Beast in the bed’).
Later I had the chance to have a few drinks with Scott and John. Here I am then, a young writer, finding his way into the industry, sat at a table with an international best-seller and someone who helped create the Hobbit films… I probably didn’t take full advantage of that, but it was a great conversation. I won’t reproduce it here, but after those trapped in the elevator (including the lovely Gemma Smith) escaped we turned our musing toward cannibalism, and I think that raised the tone.

Sunday began with an almighty hangover, but I made it to the Leanpub presentation, which gave a very interesting history of genre fictions origins in Dickensian serials. Alex gave an insight into the business of being a writer and what to look for in publishing contracts, and Anita Heiss told some hard truths about sales, genre, and finding a niche.

One of the absolute highlights was Charlotte Nash and Rebekah Turner‘s workshop on Action films. Die Hard, Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Speed and The Matrix, all used to show universal truths about how Character, Conflict and Context can be used to tell a compelling narrative.  “You need to give the characters authentic reasons to act in character. There has to be a reason in the context for the characters to act as they do.”

The panel on antagonists gave Chuck and PM Newton a chance to get side-tracked by The Wire and discussing the various ways in which McNulty, Stringer, Barksdale and Marlo were mutual antagonists, and Omar was everyone’s antagonist. Interestingly the discussion turned to the dearth of female antagonists, and it seemed that when they were present it was often opposite female protagonists or as the face of some larger systemic antagonism. “A good antagonist is the hero of his own story.”

And a wonderful event ended with a debate over whether “Genre just wants to have fun,” and despite the best efforts of John “Paris” Birmingham and his impassioned call for the negative team to stop hating life, it was Scott Baker’s reworking of Poe’s ‘The Raven’ that won the day.

Next Genrecon is 2015. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The genre writing community is so supportive and the whole event was so inspiring. There is a diverse range of perspectives, from Horror, to Romance, to Crime, to Sci-Fi, to Fantasy; novelists, short story writers… all sorts. And my people.
Any room where you can get cheered for knowing the significance of LV-426 is my kind of room!