In Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the main character Pi Patel is helping to transport some zoo animals from India to America, when his ship goes down. What follows is a strange, magic realist journey in a lifeboat with a bengal tiger called Richard Parker, featuring carnivorous islands and unlikely encounters with blind Frenchmen… or maybe not.
Once upon a time, there was a princess in a tower….
Okay, what happens next? Realistically, we have a few options:
- The princess is rescued, ideally by a handsome prince.
- The princess escapes entirely under her own steam, thank you very much.
- The princess stays there. It’s her home, and she’s severely agoraphobic.
Each one is variously subversive. But there’s one thing that’s almost certain—we will not have a story in which a princess lives in a tower because it’s convenient for the shops. It doesn’t matter how post-modern the rest of her tale is—the all-powerful fairytale demands at least a reference.
And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now, I am a modern man. I’m happy to talk endlessly about feelings (as if this series of blogs hadn’t made that clear!), I enjoy art and music, and I am entirely useless at DIY.
But I do conform to the male stereotype in one way, which is that I seem almost incapable of crying at a piece of fiction. No matter how heart-wrenching, no matter how much I feel the moment, I remain resolutely dry-eyed.
Except whilst watching Dumbo. And I hasten to add, it isn’t even the whole film. Oh no, it is just the one scene—the song which is the most powerful emotional manipulator known to mankind: Baby Mine.
Yes, Disney, you have made me bawl my eyes out over a cartoon elephant.
I’m going to start this blog with a particularly risky first line, so I want you all to bear with me, and not over react, okay?
Okay… deep breath…
Let’s be honest here—fantasy, sci-fi stories… they’re all a bit silly, aren’t they?
No, NO—wait! Come back! I didn’t mean that in a bad way….
Anyone here knows that there will always be people who can never take fantastic fiction seriously. No matter how well constructed or beautifully written, to them it will always be androgynous elves and ray guns and robots that can’t climb stairs.
And that really is a shame. To reap rewards from unreal worlds, you have to accept those worlds on their own terms. No matter how strange.
No wonder, then, that humorous fantasy is so very, very subjective.
+++Don’t turn around.+++
You thought that this was just a website. You thought that nothing could go wrong, coming here. Oh, how wrong you were.
Run, run now. The URL, it’s changing… I’ve tried pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL and nothing’s happening. You hear me, NOTHING IS HAPPENING!
Ahem, I’m sorry. My keyboard typed all of that whilst I was away. It seems to have a taste for parody.
Ah, Othello. The classic Shakespearean tragedy. As a play, it has it all—deep and unsettling themes, motiveless evil, the crippling and corrupting power of jealousy, and a man using tales of weird man-monsters to win a girl’s heart.
No really, Othello tells us how he wooed his beautiful wife, Desdemona, with tales of his exploits:
“Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field…
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen—Othello won the girl by recounting a life story that sounds less like the victories of a heroic general and more a rundown of his Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Hope for us geeks the world over, then. Shame about the murder.
I love fantasy fiction.
This is not, it must be said, a particularly bold statement on this site. I doubt that anyone reading Tor.com is likely to disagree, unless you are here by accident whilst browsing for information on Cornish Hills.
I should point out, that I’m using the term “fantasy” to encompass the whole of the Tor.com tagline: “Science Fiction. Fantasy. The Universe. And related subjects.” For me, the most ethereal faerie enchantments have just as much charm as a solid piece of sci-fi hardware. I love the unreal: the power, and wonder, and delight of worlds where nothing can be taken for granted, and everything is new.
The only question is…why?
Now, I am very aware that almost every blog post I put up here contains the words “In Britain ”. This is not because I am obsessed with my home country. Nor is it that I assume that everyone here is unaware of British things. For all I know, every single person who reads this may be British themselves.
So why? Well sometimes, I just have to lead in by talking about something that is so very British that I feel a warning is necessary. Because no matter how hard you try, you will rarely find anything more quintessentially part of the UK than Radio 4.
So, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know—Radio 4 is a BBC radio station, pretty much exclusively devoted to the spoken word rather than music. It does news and drama, comedy and documentaries. Oh, and the Shipping Forecast, the most oddly relaxing broadcast you have ever heard. Unless you ever fallen asleep to a soft yet authoritative voice reciting a litany of sea areas, giving wind strength, direction and visibility in various sea areas, you cannot appreciate its effect. Even now, if you go up to a Briton of a certain age and intone “South Utsire, Southwest 5 or 6, backing south or southeast 3 or 4 ” you will see a smile of serene bliss pass over their face.
Radio 4 is responsible for a lot of things in my life. It is responsible for my sense of humour, which is distinctly wordy and surreal. It is responsible for the odder areas of my knowledge—not every station would broadcast a documentary about the rise of Alphabetical Order, or the badger campaigners of the Lake District. But above all, with its regular readings from new works and classics alike, it has sustained my love of audiobooks.
In 1837, the poet Robert Southey published a collection of essays called The Doctor. Even though he was the British Poet Laureate, and a contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, this little collection contained something that would outlast all of his other works. It was called “The Story of the Three Bears,” and it was the first printed version of Goldilocks.
All of the elements were there—the three bears with their porridge, chairs and beds, the building repetition that delights every little child who hears it. But there is one, curious thing—in this version, the intruder was not a golden-haired little girl, but an old woman.
In a way, it makes more sense. Most children, if they broke into a strange house, would probably not spend most of their time looking for a nice place to rest, no matter how filling the porridge. And yet by common consent, as the story started to be retold, the little girl took over.
Because there are some stories that suit a child protagonist. This is more than just appealing to a similarly young audience—after all, for a children’s book to endure it must captivate parents as well. A child protagonist has less “baggage” than an adult. We might well ask what Southey’s old lady thought she was doing creeping into a strange house, but we would never need to ask the same of Goldilocks—she was simply curious, and had little respect for property.
“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are non-existent.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Dystopias have always had a fascination for readers and writers (just look at the detailed and passionate comments on my last post!). They are, in their way, a perfect place for fiction. They are places where conflict, and thus a dramatic story, is inevitable. Even if, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, failure is inevitable, the urge to break free and escape this hellish place creates instant sympathy. We don’t mind that Winston Smith is a rather unlikely revolutionary—in his horrendous world, anyone might become a hero.
But to qualify as a dystopia, a place must be more than simply terrible. Mordor, of The Lord of the Rings, is not first on anyone’s holiday list; a country dominated by a disembodied force of evil was never going to be a recipe for success. And yet Mordor, though a horrifying and iconic place, does not have the same kind of chill as Airstrip One (formerly the UK) of Nineteen Eighty-Four, because Mordor’s evil is corrupting and savage, inspiring the holders of the rings to act on base instincts, rather than rational thought.
A true dystopia has to be something more insidious—a place which is just as ideal-driven as the brightest utopia.
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.” Revelation of St John the Divine 21:1
So a typically light-hearted way to start a blog post, then
There is something about the human mind that makes us yearn for perfection. Even if we are completely happy with our lives, if we are lucky enough to be healthy, surrounded by friends and family, and comfortable, our minds stretch out, imagining places that are somehow better.
Unsurprisingly, the utopia, and its dark mirror the dystopia (more on that in the next post), are perfectly suited to speculative and fantastic fiction. We can, if we want, smooth out the bewildering complexities of the world we know, and create our own imaginary society that maybe, just maybe, can reflect an ideal.
‘If there were water
And no rock
Not the cicada
and the dry grass singing
But the sound of water over a rock
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water’ T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
Honestly, this is not that surprising. A fairly accurate description of the British climate might be “Rain, occasionally interrupted by seasons”. But, being a writer, I do tend to do quite a bit of staring out of the window, thinking, and it just struck me that this is the kind of rain that so rarely appears in fiction. Heavy-ish droplets, but not strong enough to qualify as a downpour. I wonder what kind of emotion this would try to evoke.
There’s quite a strict system when it comes to fictional weather. You can bet, if it is mentioned at all, that it will have some kind of relevance. I’m not suggesting that every scene in the rain will hinge upon important bloodstains being washed away, or will feature a car, slipping and sliding towards a deadly pileup. But if, for example, a character wakes up to find his house entirely wreathed in a thick, mysterious fog, the result is unlikely to be a light-hearted romantic comedy.
There’s a TV programme in Britain called Dragons’ Den, where ordinary people with new ideas for fledgling businesses have their hopes and dreams crushed by a sneering panel of business experts, until they leave, weeping and broken. Classic light entertainment, then.
Anyway, another person who doesn’t like it very much is the British comedian Jeremy Hardy. And I think he gets to the absolute heart of the matter in one, simple sentence:
“But the worst thing about it is the name. Dragons don’t have dens, they have lairs!”
The strange thing is, he’s right. Picturing a dragon in a den destroys their mystique. To me, a den is one step up from a burrow. A lair might have piles of shining gold, skeletons of ancient warriors and some curiously flame-retardant treasure chests. Dens contain the remains of small animals and a few balls of dung.
(Even more incongruous is the concept of keeping a dragon in a small, cozy office. Still, it would certainly prevent anyone from disturbing you!)
When I started writing full time, I never believed that I would ever want a holiday. After all, writing was my dream job—a wish come true. It seemed almost ungrateful to tear myself away from the notebooks and the computer, when I was making a living out of crafting new worlds.
And that is still perfectly true—I love writing as much as I ever did. But I’ve also realised that sometimes, you need a couple of weeks away to recharge the imagination.
So, for two weeks at the end of July, I was away in the lush depths of Cornwall, in the South West of England, singing away at the St Endellion Summer Music Festival. Hardly relaxing—we in the chorus rehearsed for up to six hours a day, and slept for far fewer hours at night—but worth it in so many ways.
If you haven’t been to Cornwall, all I can say is that the writer Patrick Gale summed it up perfectly: “Cornwall is not part of England—it is an island, joined to England by a land-bridge.” It’s beautifully remote—and a wonderful place for a fantasy writer to visit, even one so city-bound as me. It is a place that seems to breed legends, one of the parts of Britain where you can still picture dragons lying in wait.
I’ve been wondering how to begin this series of posts. It’s unnerving, arriving in a huge and fascinating community like this, with my first novel still not quite out.
In a way, it’s rather like finding a first line for a novel. Browse through any book on the craft of writing, and it will fall over itself to tell you that the first line is vitalthat it has to seize the reader in an iron grasp, and not let them go until they are at the end, or at least until they have bought the book.
All true, of course. But first lines are more than that. They are a reader’s first contact with a new world. Their first experience of a writer’s voice, or a new character. Like it or not, they colour everything that comes afterwards.
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