The Toys of Imagination

MonsterManualTony DiTerlizzi has a fascinating post up about the visual creative origins of some classic Dungeons and Dragons monsters and the power of play and imagination. Tony worked on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual and talks about how some of the monsters were based on a set of cheesy plastic monster figures from Hong Kong.

He has included some great pictures of his personal collection along with some history from Tim Kask. Well worth checking out here.

(via BoingBoing)

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Storytelling and American Horror Story

american-horror-story-coven-2Why are novels so often around 300 pages?

Why are fantasy series so often trilogies?

Why are TV shows so often 20 episodes to a season?

Do stories inherently fit into this structure? Obviously not. These common structures are rarely ever driven by story. They are driven by outside factors, the story twisted and contorted to fit into these semi-arbitrary boxes. Dickens wrote his stories knowing they would be serialized in chapbooks. Novel lengths have always been restrained by the physical size of the printed book; over one thousand pages and the book falls apart and if a book is too large it may be too expensive for readers. Thus, long fantasy epics are broken into trilogies.

Television has imposed the same artificial story structure on its creators. The season length is driven by advertising revenue streams and promotional schedules.  More importantly, television also has a unique structure that has demanded a story never actually ends. Most shows tell a story for a season, 20 or so episodes over 8 months, and then find some way to continue that story the following season. And then the season after that, and that, and then ratings or creative ideas or actor contracts make the creators introduce some conclusion to the story, if that is even possible.

This works great for some types of story telling. Procedurals like Law and Order work well since they are not telling a long form story. But those longer stories with a defined beginning and end have always had to twist their stories into the format of the medium.

But the times they are a changing. Technology has the ability to free creators from these artificial restraints. Book length means less in the e-book age and yearly TV schedules are less important with NetFlix, YouTube and on-demand viewing.

This is a huge boon for the horror genre, specifically classic horror stories. Horror tropes have been used in successful teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and long running shows like Supernatural or shorter lived shows like Twin Peaks.

The short run of Twin Peaks is indicative of the historic problem of the TV schedule on a story.  David Lynch asked us to follow him in finding out “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  Terrific story telling followed. It was weird and creepy. It was filled with amazingly unique personalities. It was full of the supernatural and the mundane.

But the story was about “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  Once that story was told, one we knew the answer to that question, Twin Peaks was not sure where to go. They were a television show and every season assumes a following season. There was no appetite for investing in a series that would automatically go off the air in only 1 or 2 seasons, killing any chance at syndication, the holy grail of television.

So Twin Peaks continued on. It puttered about and then eventually came a movie. It was at one time the most exciting show on television, but it had petered out. But this was caused not by David Lynch, but the structure of television itself. The show should have ended after the original story of Laura Palmer was told. That was the story. It was fascinating and didn’t need more.

This brings me to American Horror Story and why I am so excited about this admittedly over the top show. Each season is a single story. This singular, contained story structure allows them enormous freedom. Do you want to kill off the most popular character on the show? Sure, why not. She can come back the next season as an entirely different character. Want to chop off a characters legs? No prob.  Who are the bag guys and who are the good guys? American Horror Story keeps us guessing because each season we are following new characters played by the same stable of actors.

This structure is perfect for the horror genre. Everyone should be in danger in a classic horror story. Horror, or at least a certain type of horror, does not work if you know they will never kill off a popular character. It is impossible for Supernatural to kill off, at least permanently, either Sam or Dean. True Blood cannot kill off Sookie. They are the stars. The shows dies without them. But when telling a singular story, with a defined ending, and then allowing those actors to come back the following season for a new story (which pulls fans in), American Horror Story is free to do whatever they want.

This upcoming season we have the third installment, American Horror Story: Coven. The first season was the classic haunted house and the second about a twisted insane asylum. Now we get witches. I love witches. The Salem Witch trials have always been a deep pool for horror to draw from. It is also wonderfully american, much like the southern gothic of Faulkner or the New England terrors of Stephen King. And we get Jessica Lang, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. We get Salem styled witches and southern Voodoo. We get great actors from previous seasons like Lily Rabe and Denis O’Hare. It does not matter whether their characters were killed off during Asylum or Murder House (the first two seasons). And we have no idea who might live and who might die. We don’t know who is good and who is bad.

All we know is that over 13 episodes we will get a singular story with a concrete ending and everyone and everything else is up for grabs.

SFWA, hate speech, and standing up for what is right

Just the other day, in response to sexual harassment in the Australian military, Lt. General David Morrison said,

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us. But especially those who by their rank have a leadership role.”

This seems a standard that, so far, the SFWA has not lived up to. If you aren’t aware of the current firestorm surround the SFWA, you can start by reading Foz Meadows. And you should, her (very appropriate) anger rips through the page.

You see, N.K. Jemisin deigned to address racism in the SFF industry. Can you imagine that, a woman and person of color trying to address such an issue. I’ll let Foz summarize,

Last week, author N. K. Jemisin delivered her Guest of Honour speech at Continuum in Melbourne. It’s a powerful, painful, brilliant piece about racism in SFF, and racism elsewhere; about the barbaric treatment suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, my home, at the hands of white invaders, politicians, and most of the rest of the populace for the past two hundred-odd years. It’s also a call for Reconciliation within the SFF community: capital R, much like the Reconciliation our government has so belatedly and underwhelmingly – yet so significantly – attempted to make itself. She wrote in response to not only the recent strife within SFWA, but all the endless scandals of racefail and sexism and appropriation which have preceded it within reach of our collective memory; a memory she rightly names as short.

And as a result, Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day – a man whose man affronts to humanity, equality and just about every person on Earth who isn’t a straight white American cismale are so well documented as to defy the utility of cataloguing them here, when all you need do is Google him – has responded to Jemisin with a racist screed so vile and unconscionable that the only surprise is that even he, a man with no apparent shame, felt comfortable putting his name to it.

Wow, those are some harsh words. Some people can get heated about others views, misreading them or interpreting them in ways they didn’t mean. What might have sent Foz (and a legion of others) to raise their voices so loud, to scream to the rafters, to engage in twitter conversations that last an entire weekend?

It is vileness like this, (emphasis from Foz, this is her extract of Beale’s hate speech),

“Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious reason that she is not.

She is lying about the laws in Texas and Florida too. The laws are not there to let whites “just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence”, those self defence laws have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages in attacking white people.

Jemisin’s disregard for the truth is no different than the average Chicago gangbanger’s disregard for the law…

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support. Considering that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilised after their first contact with an advanced civilisation, it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do so in less than half the time with even less direct contact. These things take time.

Being an educated, but ignorant savage, with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by “a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys” than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine, Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity with SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance…

Reconciliation is not possible between the realistic and the delusional.

Holy Fucking Crap, that is some racist bullshit right there. How can this man continue to be a member of SFWA? He not only wrote this hate filled screed, he then pushed it to the SFWA twitter feed. By pushing it to the twitter feed, he not only violated the SFWA rules, but he made it seem if this was a view promoted by the organization.

In following the many discussion it is disheartening to see that the SFWA has remained mostly silent, Beale has not been removed. It is also disturbing to see the (mostly, if not all, white male) apologists try to defend his actions. They claim that his views are allowed because … uh … FREEDOM! Yes, it seems that a whole swarth of people do not understand what freedom of speech is. They mistakenly believe that we, the public, in our social groupings must allow unfettered speech. This is false. It is ignorance of what free speech is. When we speak of Free Speech (in the U.S. 1st Amendment sense) we speak of the governments ability to suppress speech. We, as individual social groupings, have the right to include those who we feel represent our standards and exclude those who do not.

A group like SFWA is a community of many people. A diversity of views is a positive and dynamic way for us all to learn about others, about those unlike us, about those that have lived different lives, in different bodies. These are interactions that benefit us all, they make us all better people, by understanding that which is not within our own narrow world view.

The use of hate speech (and that is the proper definition of this), trucking in racism, misogyny, and personal attacks is not only disgusting, it is HURTFUL. It is speech that is meant to diminish and denigrate others. It is an attack on other members of the SFWA and the entire community of hard working writers, publishers, editors and readers, and it is up to the leadership of the SFWA to immediately address this.

I am unsure if the leadership actually understands how big an issue this is becoming. It is moving from a single hate filled man, to a belief that the SFWA leadership is somehow afraid to confront him, to kick him to the curb, to say “You are not welcome here.” This soft response enables more hate, it is a tacit approval (through silence and inaction) that alienates new writers of all shapes, colors, sizes and gender. It hurts readers, who won’t see SFF as a place that is welcoming to them. A place where they can find fantastic stories about the wondrous diversity of existence.

Beale diminishes himself with his hate speech. The SFWA diminishes us all with their silence.

To crib from Lt. General Morrison’s comments, applied to SFWA:

the [SFWA] has to be an inclusive organization, in which every [writer], man and woman, is able to reach their full potential and is encouraged to do so. Those who think that it is okay to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in [the SFWA].

Get it done. You can fix this. You can stand up for right! You can stand up and say that Science Fiction and Fantasy are places of amazing vitality and a welcoming place for those who are not white, middle class, male, cisgendered, straight, and of course western.

* and hey, if you claim that YOU are one of those white cismales, guess what … you are already welcome. Hell, you dominate almost everything in the west, including the largest demographic of writers in the SFWA. That means it is YOU who must speak up!

Where Art and Ethics Meet

enders-game-movie-poster-191x300The other day I saw the new trailer for Ender’s Game, the upcoming big budget adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s beloved classic novel. My reaction to the short clip was mostly revulsion. I was angry that this movie was ever made. I was disappointed that so few have any idea about the author’s abhorrent views. I was sad that actors like Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley would join such a project.

You see, Orson Scott Card is a horrible bigot. He is a vicious homophobe, a man who has hatred in his heart. As Ben Kuchera said  in Penny Arcade when discussing the decision Card’s personal bigotry places on the consumer, this is who Orson Scott Card is:

In 2009 he joined the board for the National Organization for Marriage to work to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. It’s not that he believes certain things, it’s that he actively fights against equal rights and writes in detail about why being gay is terrible. In 1990 he argued for pro-sodomy laws in order to punish same-sex couples should they dare to not hide their relatioships [sic].

From his own words:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

This is the man the studio put $110 million behind. This is the man who will profit off your ticket purchase (assuming back end points, which given his producer credit seems likely). He can then use your money to spread his message of hate to more people, especially the young and impressionable youths who have devoured his novels in the past.

This gets to the point Alyssa Rosenberg discussed a while back about consuming art by horrible people. In it she points out that there is a difference between the art itself and the artist. Our relationship to any art is individual. So what do we do when our purchase of art directly profits someone (or some corporation) with such abhorrent views. Alyssa phrases it this way, “So what’s a customer who wants to consume ethically to do?”

This is a big question. This is the question that Sam addressed a while back in discussing his decision not to support Marvel’s superhero movies. It is a broader question in how we, as consumers, use our own power, and it is one that goes well beyond entertainment. Alyssa notes how such projects are actually works of thousands of people. By eschewing a product fully, we may hurt people who are simply trying to get by, the grip and the construction worker and the makeup artist, all of whom may have no idea abou the politics of the artist.  Yet, we must make our own personal ethical decisions, and Alyssa suggests four possible ways to do so.  Check out her excellent full discussion here, but this is a short summary of her thoughts,

We can (1) simply “stay home”, or we can (2) “employ political moral offsets”, or (3) “reaffirm your support of progressive media”, or (4) “commit to a discussion.” I like her argument because it places some choice back onto us as consumers. We do have different ways to engage in media, enjoy media and remain ethically true to ourselves. There is nothing wrong with refusing to support a product and sitting at home. If the art itself is not problematic, and your concern is the profit given to the bigot, you can take the same amount of money (or double it) and give it to the competing cause. You can proudly eschew those project for other, more progressive works. And always, you can (and I believe should) engage in a conversation. Communication is how we end bigotry and hatred.

It is also important to understand where profits go, and there is a big difference between classic literature by people who we know where racists and anti-semites and misogynists, and contemporary writers of today . My main problem with supporting Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is that he will directly profit from the project (similar to supporting a Roman Polanski project). It is common knowledge that H.P. Lovecraft held bigoted beliefs, he was a racist and anti-semite (and he is not alone, greats like T.S. Elliot and Charles Dickens have been accused of bigoted views). Yet, any current production of his work would in no way benefit the long dead writer. But, Orson Scott Card is still alive and directly benefits from each ticket stub. Does it matter that his novel shows very little of his bigoted views?* I don’t think so.

I am going to go with option (1) and (4). I simply refuse to give him any of my money and will stay home.  But I will also engage vigorously with anyone contemplating giving their hard earned dollars to a man so filled with hate.

* I find it fascinating that his books have so many scenes that have been viewed as homoerotic. It seems almost cliche, the classic thou “doth protest too much, methinks.”

Epic Fantasy needs to explore Epic Ideas

A Dribble of Ink has a great post up about epic fantasy.  The G., from Nerds of  a Feather, Flock Together, dives into the perceived  conservative strain that is claimed to plague epic fantasy. This conservatism is natural in the structure of epic fantasy. The genre has certain tropes of structure that inherently define it. But this structure, with its journey and great epic struggle on top of a fantastical second-worlds setting, does not demand similarly conservative takes on perceived social norms.

In fact, I’d suggest it is the area most ripe for new storytelling. Epic fantasy has a role to play in exploring creative and deep looks into how society and individuals can exist. It is the very existence of new rules, of a second-world that only needs to conform to its own internal consistencies, that allows epic fantasy to break those societal tropes. Mr G. stresses the value of the possible impossible (magic) :

What’s more, epic fantasy worlds are by definition places where the unreal becomes real. Sometimes there are dragons in the mountains, or elves, orcs and gnomes living amongst us. Occasionally there are malevolent gods who want to come back to rule; more often there are malevolent sorcerers who wield god-like powers and seek to do the same. Nearly always there are powers beyond the control of regular folks, though some gifted or enterprising young types might learn to master them. These are, by definition and in name, fantastic spaces where magic and metaphysics render the impossible possible. Epic fantasy worlds do selectively borrow from real world histories, mythologies and cultural norms, but they are rarely comprehensive or terribly accurate in those borrowings. The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the table.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the a) invented nature of epic fantasy worlds; b) heterogeneity of what falls under the epic fantasy rubric; and c) presence of user-definable systems of magic, metaphysics and the otherwise made-up would, taken together, also encourage authors to adopt a speculative perspective on social arrangements. Yet somehow keep going back to the same old medieval European settings and patriarchal, ethnocentric and heteronormative assumptions of how societies “should” look like.

As he continues to say, while acknowledging that there is nothing inherently wrong with euro-centric epic fantasy, that there is more to explore.  He is right to note how “Nora Jemisin, Doug Hulick, Saladin Ahmed and Elizabeth Bear signal that epic fantasy has discovered that worlds beyond the geographic, mythological and sociological borders of alt-Europe can be just as, and often more, compelling than the stuff we’re used to. Scott Lynch, Catherine Valente, Kate Elliott, Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham—these authors and others like them are effectively using the medium to ask complex questions about human nature.”

These are the types of authors and stories that will help expand the genre of epic fantasy and keep it vibrant into the future. The grand romantic tradition of epic fantasy is ripe for deep and complex storytelling. It can morph and change and twist into anything the imagination can conjure. The time is ripe for more epic fantasies to escape the clutches of gender and power norms, to explore new ways for a society to develop, to explore how such changes would alter a civilization. It is time to explore new ways for societies to resolve conflicts at the epic scale and to resolve power struggles. Epic fantasy has all the structure to tell powerful and compelling stories.  By mining the full possibilities of existence, outside the trappings of human prejudice and ingrained structural normas (along side magic and the impossible), these stories are capable of exploring all kinds of exciting possibilities, ones that can more keenly reflect and look back at ourselves.

In many ways, epic fantasy is still in its infancy, and that is a good sign. It shows that there is more to explore, there are new stories to tell, there are new readers and there are new writers. Let’s hope they dream some more, and imagine new worlds and new heroes, ones that will surprise us and make us laugh and love and cry and then, ponder what it all means.

Defeatism and the Fairy Tale Ending

Art by ~beti123

Art by ~beti123

I have been fascinated by myths, myth-cycles, and fairy tales for a while.  They all have an almost universal touch, they become tropes and memes and filter across humanity, percolating over the ages.  They morph and change with the times. They become the backing track of storytelling, repeating and reincarnating.  Melinda Snodgrass talks about the power of myth, fairy tale endings and reader expectations over at A Dribble of Ink and gets at some important points.

In todays post-post-modern world it is almost cliche when a story falls into senseless tragedy. It is an easy, defeatist way to force shock onto a shock-proof audience. The best of story tells us something about humanity. It can look internally at who we are as living beings, it can look into our souls. And it can look around ones self, tracing and exploring the links between us all, flittering over the complex web of interconnected souls. And it can look outward, it can look at how we deal with the universe around us in its awe and power and at the loss of control a human has when one extends beyond the immediacy of the self.

In asking, “is a fairy tale ending really all that bad?” Melinda says,

After all, David does defeat Goliath, and Odysseus gets to come home to his wife and son, Cinderella does go to the ball, Elisa spins nettles into shirts and saves her brothers and her marriage. We know the Little Tailor will outwit the giants and the king and win the princess. Things don’t always turn out badly, and people tend to remember the good things that happened to them rather than the bad. So why not celebrate that?

We know what to expect from these stories because the ending has been promised by the beginning, and if you don’t pay off that promise you are going to upset your listener/reader/viewer/player. Perhaps we all know the parameters of the promises because humans have been telling each other stories across numerous forms of entertainment for thousands of years. The tales have “grown in the telling”, as Tolkien said — from blind poets around fire pits in ancient Greece to stone hearths in castles where the tales were sung by bards, to a Dickens novel serialized in magazines, to movie palaces and finally on televisions and game consoles.

She believes there is nothing wrong with the “happy ending,” and I agree. There is a reason these stories have lasted so long. They speak to something about human existence. If our lives are defined only by tragedy then there is little reason to explore life itself. Instead humanity has thrived through its constant hope. It has advanced by reminding itself through story that life has joy, that the burdens of the everyday are often blinders to the life around us.

These stories, void of the senseless tragedy and a defeatist view of humanity, are a communal chant across the ages. They are the story tropes and memes and myths and fairy tales that have stood the test of time. They are not the exclusive bastian of the literary elite, but by all humanity, across culture and language, education and wealth. They are universals, and they often speak to hope and ethics and morality and justice and yes, sometimes they ends with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

Old Friends

Wandering the fertile realms of sci-fi and fantasy has introduced me to many interesting people. I’ve gazed upon paragons, such as Superman. I’ve shared the struggles of ordinary mortals thrust into events beyond their control, in Mordor and beyond. There are people  that have impressed me, confused me, intrigued  me, and one or two that have terrified me. But along the way there are people I came to know very well. They live in books I read over and over again, books so well loved I don’t even need to search for the good parts any more. They just fall open to them at a touch. Let me introduce you to some of these friends.

David and Leigh Eddings wrote several fantasy series together, but their first was undoubtedly their best. The Belgariad is just full of people I really enjoyed the company of. Durnik, Silk, Mandorallen and Barak are people I would recognize anywhere if I saw them, and while I wouldn’t want to fight any of them, I would love to hoist a tankard with all of them. (But if Silk were there, I’d leave my money at home.) These men are so very different, yet play off each other brilliantly. Silk, the amoral rogue and brilliant spy, is probably my favorite to watch, but Mandorallen, “the greatest knight on life,” as he modestly claims, is the one I’d spend the most time with.  Belgarath and his daughter Polgara, excellent characters though they are, walk in too lofty a circle for the likes of me. I doubt Polgara would give me the time of day, let alone spend time in my presence. Belgarath would be great fun if I could get him telling stories, but he’s a bit busy. As an ensemble cast, they are tremendous fun and a nearly unbeatable team. I have whiled away many an hour in their company traveling the world at the demand of the Prophecy that drives them.

Miles Vorkosigan is a different sort of person altogether. I’m not certain we could ever be friends, but I would be honored to work for the man. Lois McMaster Bujold’s greatest creation (in my opinion, of course,) and his family have won her four Hugo Awards and nominations for six more, and for good reason. Miles is a man driven to excel. Physically disadvantaged from birth in a military crazed culture that deplores mutants, Miles is the son of one of the greatest men of his generation. His deformities are the result of an attack suffered by his parents when he was in utero, rendering him brittle and sickly most of his life. But his mind is a tool he wields  with tremendous skill. Rather than try to hurt his enemies, Miles tends to co-opt them. As he puts it, and I paraphrase, “Why should I try to beat their strengths, when I can maneuver them to a place where that strength is useless?” Miles’ loyalty, whether to his servants, his friends, or his world is uncompromising, his approach to problems unique, and his sense of humor hilarious. Bujold’s style lets us into his life in a deeply personal way. We see his struggles, which makes cheering for his successes all the more satisfying. And the rest of his family and friends are equally impressive. As much as I treasure time spent with Miles, his father Aral Vorkosigan could claim my loyalty in a hot second, and his mother Cordelia is a woman not to be trifled with.

And then there is Harry Dresden, star of the Dresden Files novels created by Jim Butcher. Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said some people have terrified me? Harry Dresden is on the short list. Which is odd when you consider some of the other short lists he makes, such as “Person I would trust with my life.”  Harry is a wizard living in Chicago. In fact, he’s the only entry under “Wizard,” in the Chicago phone book. And friends, Harry is the real deal. This is a man who commands the forces of nature, who stands between us and things too terrible to contemplate. The facts that he read a lot of comics as a kid and plays RPG’s to relax (he plays a Barbarian.) are merely incidental, and don’t pander to my interests at all. There have been thirteen Dresden files novels so far, and of those there are only two I have not read at least three times. (I will not prejudice the jury and say which ones they are, if only to provide you with more incentive to find out for yourself.)  Harry is a dedicated man, surrounded by characters that are real and compelling. His challenges are epic, the risks he takes meeting them truly terrifying, and his solutions bold and unexpected. As dynamic and powerful as his enemies are, his friends are even better. Karrin Murphy, Harry’s closest friend, is either the best or second best female character I have ever read. Her only competition is Cordelia Vorkosigan. (Edding’s Polgara rounds out the top three. Do you see a pattern here?)

There are more out there. I could go on about Corwin, Prince of Amber. We could talk about Rincewind or Commander Vimes, and the many excellent Discworld characters from the mind of Terry Pratchett. If I wandered out of genre for a moment we could dwell on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. But in genre, these three sets of characters are the ones I return to again and again when I want to feel welcome or wonder.  If you haven’t met them yet, I urge you to go make plans to as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed.

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