Demon Hunting and Tenth Dimensional Physics: May 2015

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: Science Fantasy

It’s Saturday once again, which means a new subgenre for us to look at. Last week, I went into one of my favorite underappreciated (and unfortunately underpopulated) subgenres: new weird fiction. Now, I was planning something else for this week. Something a little more strictly sci-fi, like dystopian fiction or space opera. But last week really got my juices flowing, and I got inspired by my own little bit at the end, going off into a cousin of new weird. If new weird is the kid who likes to break the rules, then science fantasy is the kid who sits in back and dresses funky, but still pulls a 4.0. Or some metaphor that makes much more sense.

Science fantasy is essentially just what it sounds like: a combination of science fiction and fantasy elements, styles, and tropes. Things like McCaffrey’s Pern books (Dragons and telepathy and supercomputers?), Colfer’s Artemis Fowl (Yeah, leprechauns and elves… but also high tech computer things and mathematics.), and even The Giver (A genetically perfect society set somewhere after a great conflict, the world turned flat and perfected, and also the inexplicable ability to transfer memory through physical contact.).

On the film front, you don’t need to look any deeper than Star Wars (George Lucas even said the movies were space fantasy.). Set in another galaxy with FTL travel and aliens and lasers, but also more classic fantasy tropes than you can count. The chosen one, the wise old mentor who dies, the questing party, the princess, the evil overlord with a mysterious connection to our hero. Plus, no matter what anyone says, the Force is magic. Magic magic magic.

Unlike some of the other subgenres I’ve looked at recently, there are plenty of works that are absolutely science fantasy, all across different media. I touched on Gunnerkrigg Court last week, which is too blatant to ignore (Seriously. Go check it out.). Most of the Final Fantasy franchise of video games falls into this subgenre, and I would posit that you’re more likely to see science fantasy in video games than almost anywhere else. You also see it in cartoons (Gargoyles, The Legend of Korra), live action TV (Power Rangers comes to mind. All of them.), and anime and manga (Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragon Ball Z).

What are some of the big ones I missed (I’m sure I missed something blatantly obvious.)? Let me know in the comments below, and subscribe to stay caught up on Subgenre Saturdays.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: New Weird

And now for something completely different. Well, maybe not completely, but we’re looking at a subgenre that sits in my wheelhouse, but it kind of clings to ceiling and drips stuff down on everybody else’s head. See, starting in the late 1800s and bleeding into the early 20th century, you had a genre that’s known simply as ‘weird.’ It came before horror and fantasy and their ilk were really being categorized as such. These were the writings of people like H.P. Lovecraft and Franz Kafka. They didn’t fit into what was being written at the time. Mainstream/literary fiction, science romances, that kind of thing. They were different. Subversive. They were just plain weird.

You saw the same thing in the sixties and seventies, only this time it was new wave, not weird. Fantasy and horror were now well-established genres, and they, along with science fiction, had their own tropes, their own vibe, and their own expectations. New wave was just as subversive as weird fiction, but it had much more to subvert. And it did. Writers like Roger Zelazny and everybody’s favorite curmudgeon, Harlan Ellison (Who, to take this whole subversion thing to the max, refused to even call his work sci-fi or fantasy. He insisted on the umbrella term ‘speculative fiction.’).

As with everything in the publishing world, things come in cycles (Doubt me? Compare the popular romances of the 80s with the popular romances of today.). These subversive tendencies cycled right on back through into the movement I’m finally getting to: new weird. A somewhat inelegant title for what I consider to be an incredibly elegant subgenre of sci-fi and fantasy.

New weird is a strange beast. It’s not mocking SF/F as much as it is mocking literary fiction. For years and years, there’s been a struggle between the lit-fic community and the spec-fic community. As SF/F writers, we’re very often pushed into the ‘science fiction ghetto,’ because it can’t possibly be worthy fiction if there are jetpacks or aliens. Then, when there is something that the literary crowd likes that manages to claw out of the ghetto, they steal it and take that glory away.

New weird protested, and did it by writing brilliant fiction. Yes, it’s speculative fiction through and through, but it’s too completely genius for anyone to brush off, no matter the content. It’s full of sweeping ideas and it plays against the tropes standard in sci-fi and fantasy (or at least the tropes standard at the time it was written). Often, it blurs the line between the genres to a point where you can’t even tell which side of the line it falls on.

The one name that comes to the top of almost every new weird list, and for very good reason, is China Mieville. Essentially, it’s what he writes, and if you pick up his work, you’ll see exactly what new weird is. My favorite from him is Railsea, a story that could possibly be sci-fi, but could just as easily be fantasy, but maybe it really doesn’t matter. A world where the oceans are gone, replaced by railroad tracks lid in an ultimate war. It mixes religion with science, and you just can’t place it. Pure brilliance.

A few other perennials of the subgenre are His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, and Mervyn Peake’s brilliantly atmospheric Gormenghast books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone). New weird even has its own magazine, for fans of this type of fiction (Tales of the Talisman). There’s also the SCP Foundation, of which I’m a huge fan. A huge intersection between all crossroads of speculative fiction, and all very much bound in a well-woven format.

There aren’t a lot of TV shows and movies like this, unfortunately, or I would recommend them. It’s a little more common in anime and manga, where genre lines as we know them blur as it is. Things like Durarara. I feel like an argument could also be laid out for Gunnerkrigg Court as new weird, but it would perhaps be better-suited as a straight up science fantasy. More on that one next week.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: Sword and Sorcery

So last week, when I was talking low fantasy, I made lots of promises that I would go through and clarify the differences between low fantasy and sword and sorcery. Well, today is the day.

Now, the main confusion comes from the fact that, yes, sword and sorcery absolutely fits all the criteria for low fantasy. The main thing that makes sword and sorcery so different is the scope. Take everything that makes low fantasy what it is (cynicism and questionable morality and rare-to-nonexistent magic), but amp up the conflict. Like majorly. Normally, whatever your hero is up against will have magic, while he or she has nothing but a sword and determination. And the antagonists can get pretty far up there on the scale of terrifying and world destroying, including Lovecraftian horrors (Conan of Cimmeria, for example, existed right alongside HP Lovecraft’s world of elder gods.).

Sword and sorcery is also identified by the hero or heroine. Physically powerful, able to wield some kind of physical weapons, doesn’t fit in with the rest of society, or is a final remnant of their culture/kingdom/village/what-have-you. It’s not a glamorous, pretty genre. It’s about fighting and killing and glory and sex. The dirty parts of life that normally get swept under the rug.

Obviously, the most famous of all sword and sorcery works are the Conan books by Robert E. Howard. Kull the Conqueror is right up there in fame as is Red Sonja, inspired by a character in one of Howard’s stories, but taken much further than that. You also have Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga in the mix.

When it comes to TV, there are approximately two sword and sorcery shows worth watching: Hercules and Xena. Hercules came first and Xena was a spinoff… and much better, in my opinion. Both have wandering warriors of great fame, and both have to deal with enemies far more powerful than themselves. I would personally say that Xena fits the genre better, only because she’s a much darker gray on the morality scale than Hercules (she was a warlord, after all).

With movies, I’ll bypass the Conan flicks (although you really should watch them) and go for The Scorpion King. It’s perhaps a bit heavy on the magic, compared to other works in the genre, but if you’re looking for a quick intro to sword and sorcery and can’t bring yourself to watch Conan the Barbarian/Conan the Destroyer, The Scorpion King will give you some idea of what you’re working with.

If you’re looking for something a little bit more diluted, then ignore what the reviews say and take a chance watching John Carter (based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princes of Mars). Yes, it’s on Mars, which technically makes it scifi. However, the main character is big and muscular and has a physical strength him (the long jump). The enemy has a strange power (in this case, highly-advanced technology), and in spite of that, the main conflict is on a fairly small scale (all John Carter really wants is to get back to Earth). And obviously, he doesn’t fit in where he is, being a human and all.

So, what are your favorite sword and sorcery works? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe, if you want more Subgenre Saturdays.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: Low Fantasy

So, most everyone knows what high fantasy is, I would assume. Tolkien and Dragonlance and Shannara and The Wheel of Time. Huge world that isn’t earth, lots of magic everywhere, and normally massively important consequences (though not always). I don’t even feel like I need to go into it too much. It’s pretty much what comes to most people’s minds when they hear about fantasy fiction.

It’s also not what I write. I’ve tried my hand at a traditional high fantasy once or twice (or more that I’m just not remembering), and it never turns out well. I love reading them, when they’re done well, but mine are never really done well (although I still have aspirations of one day writing my high-fantasy epic… just haven’t found the time for it between everything else). What I do write (when I’m not doing urban fantasy or sci-fi) is something I never had a name for. I described it as ‘high fantasy, but without the magic.’ Or with very little magic, or magic that just wasn’t overt. So, as I was scrolling through lists, trying to decide which subgenre to do this week, I ran across ‘low fantasy.’ I was intrigued because they had ‘urban fantasy’ as a separate entry on that list, and I’d always been told that urban and contemporary fantasy was low fantasy. So of course I clicked.

Turns out, I’ve been writing low fantasy for years, at least by that definition. It’s one of those that people can’t seem to decide on. Some people still say that urban fantasy is low fantasy. To me, that just seems redundant, so I’m sticking with this. Low fantasy is an alternate world, just like high fantasy, but you don’t have wizards running about throwing fireballs at dragons to save the Holy Chalice of House McGuffin from Larinth the Dreameater. Magic is rare in low fantasy, when it’s present at all. If there’s magic, it’s often gone missing or isn’t widely accessible. It may exist only in artifact form, or require the will of the gods, or belong to a single nearly-dead bloodline. Whatever the case, it’s not normally a viable problem-solving option in low fantasy.

Now, I’ve never read A Song of Ice and Fire (it’s on my to-read list, I promise), but I’ve talked to people who have. From what they describe, at the beginning, those books are low fantasy. Magic is uncommon and the major conflict to start with is this battle over the throne (all what I’ve heard, so I may be wrong. If so, I apologize). As magic comes more and more into play, it becomes sort of high fantasy, but it’s the most popular example I could think of.

(There’s also apparently a lot of crossover with sword and sorcery, when it comes to the great wintery world of Westeros. There’s also a lot of crossover between low fantasy and sword and sorcery. I’ll get into that particular subgenre next week.)

There are a handful of other things that set low fantasy apart from high fantasy and, at least for me, make it more enjoyable to read. It hits a lot of the things I like to see in my fiction. It’s a much smaller plot, which I prefer. Instead of saving the world, you’re trying to save your sister or your house or maybe your village.

It also hits one of the big character things I love: gray morality. In high fantasy, you often have a very cut and dry, black and white morality, including villains and heroes that get color-coded for your convenience (The evil forces all wear black armor, and the good forces are shiny and sparkly). In low fantasy, while it’s not ubiquitous (there’s very little in any genre or subgenre that would be considered ubiquitous), the characters often have gray morality. You don’t often get into anything as light as white and gray morality (a clearly good side, and a sort of ambiguous side, or evil that is sort of kind and really just needs a hug), but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. You’re much more likely to see both sides with gray morality (neither side is necessarily all that evil, but they’re not going to bring you cookies and milk, either). Their conflict isn’t necessarily based around one side being bad and the other being good, but just around them being opposed. And then, at the dark end of our morality scale, you have black and gray morality. Basically, neither character is wonderful, but one of them is just downright evil, so a lesser evil has to be brought in to solve it (like summoning a demon to fight the Devil).

Now, as I said, none of these things have to happen to make it low fantasy. Take Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard books. There’s very clearly some real magic going on, but it doesn’t factor into the plot, and it’s not something the characters can turn to in order to solve their problems. At least not reliably. They have to go with cleverness and quick-thinking and more mundane skills.

On the movie and TV side of things, you norm

ally don’t come close to low fantasy. When they go for it in a medium like that, they normally really go for it. The closest would be something like Conan the Barbarian, but that’s sword and sorcery to the core (again, next week, I promise).

Unfortunately (at least for me), low fantasy has never really taken off on its own. It can be used to describe a lot of different genres and subgenres, but very few people produce it. So, if you know any really good low fantasy that I should be reading, let me know. I’m on the lookout for these kinds of books, and now I know what to look for.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

I Will Walk with You

This is something that really touched me, and something that I really think needs saying, in light of everything happening in the SF/F community at current.

At Worldcon, and at any other con, any other situation, if you see me and you don't feel comfortable, I will walk with you.

A quick rundown of what's been happening to bring bout my (re)posting of this: there have been some things going on with Hugo awards. I'm not here to say who is right or who is wrong, or if anyone is right or wrong in this situation. Look up 'Hugo Sad Puppies' and make that decision on your own.

I'm here to say that some people feel unsafe because of what happened. Unsafe and uncomfortable. For that reason, I offer to walk alongside anyone who needs it.

This all started with Vonda McIntyre. Here's what she had to say (full blog post HERE):

“I will walk with you at Worldcon.

I’m not very fond of confrontation. I’m a courtesy 5’1? and my 67th birthday (how did that happen?!) is just after the convention and I’m walking with a hiking pole while recovering from a hiking fall, an injury that’s taking way longer to heal than when I was a pup.

On the other hand I’m a shodan in Aikido.

On the third hand, which I can have because I’m an SF writer, shodan — first degree black belt — is when you realize how much you still have to learn.

But I’m thinking that maybe it would make folks who feel threatened feel a little safer to have someone at their side, maybe even someone with a bunch o’ fancy ribbons fluttering from her name badge, even if that person is shorter, smaller, and older than they are, white-haired and not physically prepossessing. It’s another person’s presence.

It might cause some abuse not to happen.”

Now, I'm not a shodan in Aikido (in 4th grade, I had a white belt in karate...), and I don't have the same presence as Vonda McIntyre. I also hate wearing those badge ribbons. One or two is my max. But I'm 5'10", and close to 300 pounds (and dropping, yay me!), and I generally look intimidating. But even if I didn't, like she said, it's a presence, it's someone by your side. And I will do that, and happily so.

If you feel like you need someone, whatever side of the issue you fall on, I will walk with you.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: Wuxia

Well, today we’re going for something a little bit less familiar to a lot of my readers…and possibly something I’ve talked about before, but not necessarily in depth like this. Wuxia fiction. It’s at once a very specific description and also an incredibly broad one. Wuxia translates (roughly) to ‘martial hero,’ if I can believe the internet. I don’t speak any dialect of Chinese, so take what I have to say with a side-dish of doubt, when it comes to that.

Wuxia is a very old genre, and it deals with the adventures and wanderings of martial artists. Normally, they aren’t serving anyone but their own code of honor, which is often the best sort of law. It’s normal in wuxia to see a corrupt or unjust government (or at the very least, incompetent) which forces our martial artist hero to take matters into his or her own hands. All of this is set against the jianghu, assort of alternate reality version of imperial China (Note: wuxia doesn’t technically have to take place in that setting, but it almost always does. If anyone knows of any set in the modern world, please please let me know—I think that would be so awesome to read/watch/what have you.).

So all of that is what makes it such a specific subgenre of fantasy. If you miss those essential beats, it’s going to leave the audience a bit perplexed, at best, even if they don’t know why. At worst, it’s going to make for a very upset audience member or two… or more.

What makes it so general is… well, everything else. Wuxia is a very broad-ranging genre. It was initially literature, but has so pervaded culture in China (and is taking a stronger and stronger hold in other part of the world) that it’s moved into opera and, probably most famously overseas, cinema. All those movies (or a lot of those movies, anyway) that you see full of martial arts and questionable physics? They’re part of the rich landscape that is wuxia.

Probably the most famous wuxia movie for most people in the US is Crouching Tiger, HiddenDragon. And it hits all the beats. A government that has some seriously messed up stuff, a bunch of disparate martial artists, each with a very strict code of honor, the jianghu, and of course the fighting.

But then, on the other side of the movie coin, you have Kung Fu Panda. Yes, I’m absolutely serious about this. Take a look at it. Kung Fu Panda hits all the required wuxia beats: the closest we have to a real government (the prison) lets the incredibly dangerous evil kitty cat out. At the same time, our hero, who has no master, is destined to fight the evil kitty cat. And we’ve got the jianghu, which is very obvious. I’ll admit, it’s incredibly westernized, but it’s still widely considered to be a wuxia movie, and for very good reason. It even touches on a lot of tropes that pop up in other works of wuxia (the secret technique, the counter to the unstoppable style of combat, the old man/woman you don’t want to mess with).

When it comes to books, probably the most famous of all in wuxia are Romance of the ThreeKingdoms and Journey to the West, both written hundreds of years ago. In more modern literature, you have the Dutch-written Judge Dee books (initially inspired by an eighteenth century wuxia work) and the slightly-off-from-wuxia Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox.

Now, I wouldn’t be able to go into wuxia without at least touching on the influence it’s had in a newer story-telling medium: video games. You have the Dynasty Warriors franchise (based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms). You also have one of my favorites from my gaming era, Jade Empire. Even World of Warcraft got on board the wuxia boat with Mists of Pandaria.

And there are TV shows. There are comics and graphic novels. There are anime and manga that take from wuxia. It’s one of the most pervasive subgenres, yet it’s also hardly known to those outside of China. It’s also one that I think deserves its time in the spotlight.
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