Saturday, June 29, 2013

One Story at a Time: the Fantasy Short-Story Series

Fantasy and the series go together like Smeagol and Gollum, but mostly people think about obese volumes collected into trilogies, tetralogies, dodecalogies, eicosilogies and the like.  There's another type of series, though, that has played a crucial role in the development of fantasy — the short-story series.

The fantasy short story goes back to Lord Dunsany, whose first stories came out in the early years of the 20th century.  Well, it's not really as simple as that, of course.  Fantasy has been around since the dawn of storytelling, and so have short stories.  Still, Dunsany was really the first writer of modern fantasy who excelled at the short story, but most of his work consists of stand-alone stories, give or take the odd sequel or recurring character.

It was in the U.S. pulp magazines that the fantasy short story really came of age, in the hands of authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft (yes, he wrote fantasy as well as horror) and their successors, and it was here the series came into its own.  Some were only loosely connected by setting, such as Smith's tales of Zothique, Hyperborea, Xiccarph and many others.  Other authors focused on a specific character, or pair of characters: Howard's Conan, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp's Harold Shea, and countless others.

The tradition survived well into the 60s and 70s, though by this time there was more of an impetus to write novels.  Both Michael Moorcock's Elric and Karl Edward Wagner's Kane featured both in novels and short stories, for instance.  The process has developed, and novels are now the default for any fantasy author wanting to write something ongoing, while the series of shorter stories is now predominantly the domain of TV.

Most short stories now are stand-alone, but the series isn't entirely dead.  I love the format, and I've developed several of my own.  There are the stories relating moments in the Traveller's millennia-long journeys.  There are the tales of Eltava's life, many of them overlapping with the Traveller's series.  There are the wanderings (both in a physical and a moral sense) of teenage sorcerers Karaghr and Failiu, a lighter series perhaps more in Leiber's tradition.  And then there's the completely unrelated series about spoof hard-boiled detective Sam Nemesis.

So what's the attraction of the series, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

I suppose the most obvious disadvantage must be the risk of getting repetitive, of falling into a predictable formula for every story.  On the other hand, this pitfall isn't restricted to a series: an unimaginative author can easily recycle the same plot and characters over and over, even when all the names are changed.

There's also the practical issue that, when the stories are published occasionally, here and there, it's necessary effectively to introduce the main character and the concept for each story.  Back in the days of the pulp magazines, the Conan stories, for instance, (almost) always appeared in Weird Tales, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in Unknown.  It meant that the author could assume that a large proportion of the readers were familiar with the series, in the same way that a TV series doesn't need to introduce first principles every episode.

That isn't true with current short story magazines, whether print or online: readers don't generally want to see the same authors and the same characters coming up issue after issue, and writers of a series have to hawk the stories around, getting into one publication here and another there.  The seven published stories in my Eltava series, for example, have appeared in six different magazines.

On the other hand, a series gives the opportunity to develop a character or a setting in a way that's usually only possible in a novel.  Even if the readers aren't following it consistently and consecutively, as with a TV series, the author is able to gain a deep knowledge of the character and the settings in which he or she appears, if those are constant, and that can translate as a level of confidence and reality that will come over even to the casual reader.  It's the same as how, for example, a new viewer of Doctor Who can often feel the weight and significance of the show's fifty years behind what they watch, without having to understand everything that's gone before.

Unlike a novel series (though there are exceptions even with those) a short story series doesn't have to come in sequence, especially when the stories are being published here and there.  Indeed, many of the classic series weren't written with any strong sense of sequence at all.  The Conan stories have a vague sense of Conan getting older, and they've subsequently been arranged by fans into a firm order, but for the most part they "reset to default" for the beginning of each story. 

The original seven stories of Fafhrd and the Mouser, written for Unknown, follow an approximate sequence, largely governed by the pair's four-story-long excursion to the western continent and back to Lankhmar, and the stories Leiber wrote from the 70s onward follow an order, but the stories in between are fairly random.  When the whole series so far was gathered into five volumes in the 60s, two of the three stories in volume one were among the last to be written.

On the other hand, a series with a more logical progression, such as the Harold Shea stories, might be written and published in strict sequence.  The two approaches can be seen on TV, too.  Many older shows, such as the 60s classic The Avengers, were done very much on a reset to default system — nothing that happened in a given story was carried over to the next episode, and they can be comfortably watched in any order at all.

To a slightly lesser extent, this is also true of the original Star Trek, and indeed there are different versions of the correct order for these stories.  By the later versions of Star Trek, though, from the late 80s onward, this had changed.  Characters changed and developed in a logical way, and the events surrounding them developed too.  The first couple of years of The Next Generation could just about be watched out of sequence, though not comfortably, but Voyager couldn't at all.

I've used the full range of options for my various series.  The Sam Nemesis tales are completely reset to default — they take place in an undefined mythical setting, where nothing significantly changes.  At the other extreme, the stories I've written so far about Kari and Fai (three published, and I'm working on the fourth) follow a logical sequence of events, and to some extent show the characters taking forward what happens in one story to the next.

The Traveller and Eltava are both written completely out of order, especially the Traveller, whose stories might be set thousands of years and thousands of miles apart.  In the case of Eltava, I started with the most obvious part of her life to write about (her twenties) and have since expanded backwards and forwards — so far from early teens to late sixties.

The advantage of this is the capacity to explore the character thematically, rather than lineally.  A story about the Traveller at the age of four thousand might inspire something he does as a spring chicken of a few hundred, as much as vice versa.  I used this approach too in the novel At An Uncertain Hour, but most novels don't have the capacity to explore this kind of thematic development.

Even with those series that are written, the aim is to publish them, carefully arranged in sequence, in a book (of whatever format).  An example, a few years back, is the excellent The Servant of the Mantichore by Michael Erhart, which falls halfway between a story collection and a novel.  Of course, I'd love to have my various series in book form, but in some ways that's a distraction from the nature of the series: to explore the characters and settings in a form that can grow in strength by being taken together, but is ultimately designed to be read one story at a time.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Being a Fan

I randomly turned on the radio the other day to find that the presenter was talking to Neil Gaiman.  A good enough reason to listen anyway, but even more so since they were spending some of the time talking about Iain Banks — what a great writer and nice guy he was, and how he'll be missed.

You may be aware that Banks, who died a week ago, was one of my favourite authors.  I've been surprised, though gratified, by how much media attention has been given to him — not really a reasonable reaction, considering that he was a very successful author as well as a very fine one.  Wondering why I've had that reaction, I've realised that this is a general thing for me — if I'm a fan, I never really expect a huge presence in the media for the object of my enthusiasm.

In a way, this doesn't correspond at all with actual experience.  After all, three of my greatest lifelong enthusiasms are for Bob Dylan, Tolkien and Doctor Who: none of them exactly little known.  Then again, other musical idols such as the Incredible String Band, Roy Harper, Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson, while not actually obscure, are hardly household names, while some, such as the superb mediaeval-progressive acid-folk-rock band Circulus, definitely fall into the "little known" category.

In terms of authors, when I get away from Tolkien and Banks (and Shakespeare, needless to say) many of my favourites are similarly not names on all lips.  Ursula LeGuin, Mike Moorcock and Fritz Leiber are well known among speculative readers (though they should be better known) but aren't widely known to non-specialist readers.  My now-favourite living author (formerly joint-favourite) Mary Gentle isn't as well known even in spec circles as she deserves.

Still, I wouldn't say most of my idols are unknown, and some are immensely famous.  So why is it that I'm always taken by surprise when I find evidence that I'm one fan among many?

Thinking about it, I suspect there are two ways of being a fan (although, like most such divides, it's more of a continuum than an on-off): the gang approach and the intimate approach.  The alternative taken is mostly down to the fan, but different kinds of idols probably suit one or the other approach better.

The fans of most of the "latest pop sensations", I suspect, tend to take the gang approach, which is based on the power of mass opinion.  The fan is part of a huge collective whose power is in numbers, and it's crucial to be the biggest gang.  Even in the face of evidence that the idol is a laughing-stock in many circles (naming no names), the fan expects everyone to share their enthusiasm and is offended when they don't.

At the other extreme, the intimate approach to being a fan is more like a relationship with your best friend.  After all, you might think your best friend is the most fantastic person on the planet, but you'd still be a bit disconcerted to run into a random stranger in another city who knows them and shares your view.

I think this might be partly because — both with the friend and the idol — there can be a trace of jealousy in the relationship.  This is someone who's special to me.  Only a trace, mind you, but it can be enough to create an element of resistance to admitting I have to share this special person, even if I'm also delighted that the world seems to be displaying a rare example of taste.

It's not always as simple, of course, as gang or best friend.  In practice, most fan-idol relationships have aspects of both, but it's likely that one or the other will predominate.  And, since the dominant side seems to be the intimate one for me, I suppose I'll never quite get my head around the fact that lots and lots and lots of other people also love Dylan, Tolkien and Doctor Who.  And Iain Banks.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review of Star Trek Into Darkness

Having been a fan of Star Trek, in all its formats, for many years, I was looking forward to seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, and I recently managed to get to the cinema to see it.  In general, I enjoyed the film, but I have some reservations about the way the reboot is proceeding.

Following on from its predecessor, the film presents us with young versions of Kirk, Spock and the rest getting used to each other and to the Enterprise.  We start with the tail-end of a separate adventure, in the course of which Kirk manages to break just about every Star Fleet rule, and probably a few they haven't thought of yet.  This is, of course, a time-honoured way of starting an action film (including pretty much every Bond film) and offers a way of opening with a bang without skimping on the set-up for the main story.  This section is fun, and could quite easily be the end of an episode from the TV show.

We're then introduced to the villain, splendidly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who blackmails a grieving father into starting a campaign of terror that has an ulterior motive.  Without giving away too many spoilers, both he and another character in the film have strong connections with a past Star Trek film, while a scene fairly late on is also an obvious reference to the same film.

The Enterprise is sent on a secret mission to find Cumberbatch's character — known initially as John Harrison — in hiding on Kronos, the Klingon planet.  All is not as it seems, though, and Kirk has to negotiate his way between enemies on all sides, inside Star Fleet as well as outside, but to survive and to do the right thing.

For the most part, the principals seem well cast.  Chris Pine combines both the raw energy and mild obnoxiousness William Shatner brought to Kirk with the bumptiousness of youth, and Zachary Quinto is uncannily like a young Leonard Nimoy.  Karl Urban as McCoy is somewhat sidelined, although he does get the occasional Dammit, Jim, whereas Simon Pegg's Scotty has a lot more action than was usual in the show, and he generally handles it well.  Zoe Saldana is good as Uhura, but I can't say I see a lot of the mature Uhura in her, and I was surprised to find her and Spock an item.  There is a scene in The Original Series that could be taken as a reference back to that, but I think Uhura was simply teasing Spock then.

Perhaps the biggest reality gap is that a ship as important as Enterprise would be crewed with a bunch of youngsters as its senior officers and someone barely out of the Academy as its captain.  In the first film, of course, it was an emergency, but, instead of rewarding the young people with commendations and promotions, Star Fleet has apparently turned over one of its proudest ships to them.  It takes enough suspension of disbelief to build a bridge out of — but, then again, there'd be no film if that hadn't happened.

With so large a "regular" cast, there aren't many other significant characters, besides Harrison and a guest female science officer, but the few who are more than bit-parts work well.  Harrison's blackmail victim is played by Noel Clarke, Mickey from Doctor Who, making him one of a select group of actors who've appeared in both franchises.  I'd like to have seen more of his character.

There are a few retcons, though probably no more than between TOS and the later versions.  In particular, the Klingons have had a makeover, but nothing as radical as the update in the 80s (which, of course, they don't like to discuss) — they still look essentially Klingon.

I think my principal doubt about the reboot as a whole is a matter of feel.  A lot changed in Star Trek between The Cage in 1965 and These Are the Voyages... in 2005, but it had an unmistakable feel throughout all its many incarnations.  I'm not entirely sure the new version shares that — there seems to be less of the strategy and negotiation that was key to so many stories, and more big explosions.

That isn't unique to this film, of course: it seems to be getting more difficult to have anything that balances action and thoughtfulness.  They've got state-of-the-at special effects, and they're gonna use them.  Now, I like breakneck action and explosions as much as most, but not at the expense of intelligence and thoughtfulness.  I'm not saying Star Trek Into Darkness is without these, but I do get the feeling that it's been dumbed down a little to fit in with current trends, and I find that a pity.

On the other hand, perhaps I'm being a bit churlish.  If I were coming to this with no preconceptions, I'd probably find it highly enjoyable — and, in fact, I did find it enjoyable.  Rebooting a franchise is a delicate balance wherein it's impossible to please everyone, as the makers of Doctor Who have found.  I'm certainly happy to stick with this new version of Star Trek and see what they do next.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Iain Banks RIP

It was announced today that Scottish author Iain Banks (also known as Iain M. Banks) died today of gall bladder cancer - the BBC website has both the story and the obituary

In April, when he announced that he had terminal cancer, I posted my own personal tribute to Iain Banks on this blog, so I won't add to that now.  I just want to say goodbye and thank you for all those brilliant books.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Living in a Flexible World

I just signed the contract with Musa Publishing for a second ebook, The Lone and Level Sands, to be issued under their Urania imprint.  This story is set in the same world as my previous Musa publication, The Treason of Memory (as well as many other stories, including my StoneGarden novel At An Uncertain Hour and my Darwin's Evolutions ebook The Temple of Taak-Resh) but in a different type of setting from those.

The two last, like a number of others, are set in what could loosely be called a standard setting for epic fantasy or sword & sorcery.  Hopefully not in a clich├ęd way — I try to portray a range of different types of pre-gunpowder civilisations, rather than the usual bland blend of something that vaguely passes for a cross between mediaeval Europe and ancient Babylon — but the stories have broadswords, horses, temples to numerous gods and so on.

The Treason of Memory, on the other hand, is set in a culture of flintlocks and rapiers, somewhat reminiscent of Europe in the late 17th/early 18th centuries, while The Lone and Level Sands has more in common with the mid 20th century.  This is a long way from broadswords, or even flintlocks, although perhaps not exactly like the equivalent period in the real world: land vehicles are mainly electric, for instance, and air travel comes courtesy of airships.

The Lone and Level Sands is archaeological fantasy.  Like parts of the Indiana Jones series, it's set in a desert country in an unstable world where anything could happen.  It has elements of a thriller — sinister rivals, trigger-happy soldiers, blackmail and betrayal — as well as the fantasy elements of a temple out of mythology and... well, you'll have to read the story, when it comes out.

Coincidentally, I have another story coming out later this year, in the excellent magazine Aoife's Kiss, which is related to this, to the extent that it's also a view of the same myth from a "modern" world.  This time, though, the culture is the computer age of the same world.  If you pay attention, you'll find a couple of more specific links between the two.

So what's the advantage of doing it this way?  Wouldn't it be simpler to create a world for each story, or at least each series?  A pre-gunpowder world, a world of flintlocks, and so on?  Just invent what I need, when I need it?

Well, it would be easier in some ways, but I think nowhere near as effective.  In a joined-up world, the ideas don't come in isolation, and they don't develop in isolation, either.  The legend behind The Lone and Level Sands is (hopefully) effective because it's a story I already knew, and the "modern" discovery has a history that make it comparable to finding a relic from Atlantis in our world.

The background to these stories isn't just a background — it's people and places whose stories I know and have written about.  That's a level of reality that's difficult to achieve in a one-story world.  Not impossible, but difficult.

The world I use offers me the means to write almost any kind of story I want, from epic fantasy to occult thriller — I've even found a corner to write something resembling steampunk — and stories come into being from the influence of their own past and future.  There are stories coming to me that need to belong to a different world, whether it's a one-off or an ongoing world, but I don't anticipate running out of fascination and inspiration in my flexible world anytime soon.  Probably never.