Is Life to Short to persist reading Steven Erikson

This was the question that I recently asked myself, having waded through the mire of 120 pages of the Garden of the Moon and being completly baffled as to how this got through editing. There seems to be a number of basic storytelling errors in the lack of clarity of this book. Presumably this flaw extends to the rest of Erikson’s books, but I can’t really be bothered to find out. It’s strange that many of today’s readers might groan about reading supposedly heavy books such as War and Peace. But I tell you what, those heavy books of the past are page-turners compared to some of the badly written, badly edited books published today.

I blame RPGs (role-playing games, not rocket propelled grenades). They seem to have given rise to a host of writers who want to turn their fantasy team based gaming experiences into literature. It shouldn’t be allowed. Unfortunately there are enough RPGers out there to read the stuff.

When I picked up Gardens of the Moon I was hopeful. Apparently Erikson is trained as an anthropologist, so maybe the cultures and societies of his work would be subtely created. No such luck, there seems to be a complete lack of sophistication in the regurgitation of fantasy tropes such as Free Cities, Robert Jordan like wormholes and nuclear bomb like magic. The writing was on the wall for me when I read that there was a war being fought three thousand leagues away from the army’s homeland. Unless I have missed something and this is a Scifi book, then that would be frankly impossible for a pre-industrial nation. The circumference of our own world is not this much!

Dogs by Nancy Kress – Photo contest

I recently referenced Nancy Kress’s book on creating characters, so I thought I’d give her new novel, Dogs, some publicity too! The publishers, Tachyon Publications, are running a competition for readers to send in pictures of their dogs.

The novel is due to be released on 1st July. Not sure if this is just a US publication date though?

Do all languages have a common ancestor?

If you’re crazy enough to want to create languages for your fantasy fiction world then this is an inportant question. Where do your languages come from. Could there be a common ancestor for all your languages. If so there will be similarities between them. Many people will have heard of the phrase Indo-European languages, which describes most of the languages of Europe and Asia as having common routes – all except Turkish, Basque and Finnish of course – where these came from who knows. Aliens?

This talk on TED suggests that all languages may have come from a common ancestor. I’m not sure if I can accept this. It suggests that man began to talk before he spread out of his homeland and settled other parts of Europe and Asia. Is this possible? It also suggests that different groups of men would have developed the same language at the same time. Again this sounds unlikely and frankly I’m a bit surprised at this conjecture – there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it.

Going back to the implications for a fantasy world setting, it really depends on how you see the origin of the world. Being quite pedantic about this, these things actually matter to me. I don’t feel comfortable not knowing roughly why my characters inhabit a world that isn’t like the Earth we know. So therefore there needs to be an origin explanation for me. Alternate reality like Moorcock’s Eternal Champion maybe, an older version of Earth like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyboria? It’s seems a shame that often modern fantasy writers often don’t consider these origins. For me this means that the reason for their writing hasn’t really been truly thought through. Rather the aim is to build on a tradition where a standard fantasy setting is acceptable because that’s what readers have come to accept. So in a way a pretty non-fantastic, non-speculative fictional genre has been established where we all know the rules already. This can be OK if the writing is good, but in the end its going to become tired.

Science-fiction can perhaps offer more.

What I’m hoping to do in my writing is to offer a development of this by giving a reason for my fantasy world existing, this means breaking out of some of the traditions of fantasy writing worlds though and starting with a clean slate of a world. But, I must admit its difficult not to rely on what we know of human history or previous fantasy writing. Something like Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia series is a benchmark for what I’m hoping to do.

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

I have now reached the character building stage of my current writing project. Having built up a good head of steam on the world building side, with languages, history, mythology and some cultural/society bits sketched out, I decided to move onto some of the main characters of my book. I know that I will be going back to the world building as inevitably working on characters and plot will bring up questions I hadn’t previously thought about on the world background side of things.

So I started off by using a tool from a great book, Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. In this book she has included something called a Character Intelligence Dossier. A form that asks you, the writer, questions about your character. Such as what age are they, who’s their father, what people do they hang out with, what speech mannerisms do they have, what do they wear. In fact several pages of questions that one might imagine are not altogether necessary. However, although I am only a couple of pages into the intelligence dossier for my story’s main character, I have already found that one of these seemingly inconsequential questions has given birth to what maybe some great sub-plots and new minor characters that I hope will enrich my story. For me the question was who does the character hang around with after work. This got me thinking and stirred up some interesting ideas about who might latch onto my story’s hero and try to influence him.

I’m looking forward to answering more questions over the next few days and weeks!

Genetic Differences Amongst Nomadic populations

This piece of research about ADHD genes in Kenyan nomads shows that certain genes that might be less suitable in a settled culture are actually beneficial in a nomadic setting. Apparently the behaviour associated with ADHD can lead to nomads being more effective in fighting off raiders and finding food and water.

My current writing research concentrates on a nomadic civilisation so this was of interest to me!

Jack Vance Tribute Songs of the Dying Earth Announced

I heard about this first about a year ago, it’s a great idea, an anthology of stories by top fantasy writers based on Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (an inspiration for Gene Wolfe’s Earth of the New Sun of course!). The book is edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and there will be special signed editions available. Looks great!

Stories from:

* Robert Silverberg* Terry Dowling* Glen Cook* Tanith Lee* Liz Williams* Kage Baker* Elizabeth Moon

have already been contribued.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a release date yet as stories are still to be contributed from:

* Neil Gaiman* Dan Simmons* Elizabeth Hand* Matt Hughes* Mike Resnick* Phyllis Eisenstein* Paula Volsky* Howard Waldrop* Tad Williams* Walter Jon Williams* John C. Wright* Lucius Shepard

Severian of the Guild review at SF Site

It was with interest that I read the review by Paul Raven of the 2007 Book of the New Sun edition, called Severian Of The Guild – essentially a repackaged version by Gollancz.

Paul, despite acknowledging Wolfe’s genius, also describes the problems he has with the allegory and particularly the Christianity in the book. I, like Paul, am an athiest, but I didn’t really find the allegory a problem – I guess I expect authors to not necessarily share my belief systems and to have their own agendas. Also, because the narrative is so dense and complex, it is actually possible to ignore the allegory – it all depends how much you want to interpret I think. It didn’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book for me.

I was also puzzled that Paul grew impatient with the narrative style of the Book of the New Sun:

“Simply by merit of our unreliable narrator Severian, Wolfe is already subverting the modernist notion of novel-as-literal-truth, and there are a number of moments where Severian draws back from the narrative to pass comment on the nature of narrative itself, straying into metafictional territory.”

Narrative games are an essential part of Wolfe’s work, and to be quite frank it can take a sophisticated reader to appreciate them. However, to say that somehow there is a modernist mainstream that Wolfe is subverting is wrong. Post-modernist questioning of the narrator has been with us for a long time – see my previous blog posting on The Wasp Factory and The Tin Drum for instance. With any text that has a narrator in the first person, the reader should beware. Unfortunately a lot of fantasy and sci-fi can be quite unsophisticated and perhaps its readers are missing out as a result. Which means that unfortunately that great writers like Gene Wolfe don’t get the credit they deserve, even from their own constituency – i.e. SF/F readers.

Having said that, the Book of the New Sun can be heavy going – I would recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Peace as easier introductions.