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Fiction as Lies

I read a really interesting article from the New York Review of Books today by Namwali Serpell titled “The Banality of Empathy.” In it, Serpell discusses the fundamental fiction of narrative empathy as imagined in literature. She writes:

This viewing experience [of Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch] finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?

The problem, as Serpell asserts, is that narrative empathy – the whole “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” – is a self-indulgent and inherently privileged act. We, the reader, wish to experience something outside of our milieu – fine – but doing so amounts to a kind of emotional tourism. Feeling that empathy for whoever it may be – a criminal, an orphan, a slave, a concubine, an assassin, a warrior – is just fun. It doesn’t translate into actual, real-world action or advocacy for criminals, orphans, slaves, concubines, assassins, or warriors. Furthermore, while doing this for fanciful characters is one thing, we start to run into real problems when we start to apply this empathy to real-world people who are suffering, down-trodden, oppressed, or marginalized. Emotional tourism as a space wizard is one thing, but emotional tourism in the shoes of a transgender person gets…reductive, even insulting.

Serpell demonstrates this with an extended analysis of Violet Allen’s “The Venus Effect,” published in Lightspeed in December, 2016 (a phenomenal and inventive story you should all read, btw). Allen deliberately breaks the narrative, over and over again, as a means of conveying a point, but also of exhaustively demonstrating the inherent falsehood of narrative itself. Stories are supposed to possess a distinct structure – a flow of rising action, climax, resolution. We want catharsis and cohesion. It’s all supposed to make sense. Of course, life does not operate by those rules. Fiction superimposes an artificial structure on reality that we inherently accept because of the parlor trick that is narrative empathy.

For some years now, I’ve struggled with reading second person narration. I’ve tried (several times now) to read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and, being honest, the second person chapters never fail to knock all enthusiasm I have for the narrative right out of me. I find second person jarring – it draws my attention to the artificiality of the text, and it prevents me from identifying or engaging with the story. I am being addressed, but then being told I am doing things that I am not, and the effect is that I know I’m not doing these things and so, by definition, these things are not happening. It’s fingernails on a chalkboard.

I’ve been struggling to understand the why of second person. If you want to draw people in to a close relationship with the character, why not just use first person? In reading Serpell’s piece, now I’m forced to wonder if the problem isn’t just my tastes, but perhaps something larger than that – a certain kind of closeness I don’t want to have. Is it because am unwilling to alienate my own identity to the point where I can immerse myself in the text? Maybe. But then I also wonder whether that pronounced artificiality of second person is intentional. The writer wants to kick me out of my comfortable chair on my emotional vacation. Wants to wake me up and make me look at the story as a story and not a window into another world. Sure, I find this upsetting. But don’t I deserve to be upset? Shouldn’t somebody rattle our cage once in a while and make us look at what we’re doing?

Fiction is, by its nature, unreal. That’s okay! What maybe isn’t okay, though, is the ways in which we forget that and let our fiction do the work our real world selves should undertake.

New S&SF Anthologies Kickstarter from Zombies Need Brains – Pledge now!

Hello, friends!

Click on the image and pledge now!

I mentioned a little while back that I had been invited to anchor an anthology of cross-cultural exchange stories called When Worlds Collide. Well, it’s happening – or, at least, it’s in the process of happening. To fund the anthologies (and thus pay the authors and pay for the printing and so on), the publisher, Zombies Need Brains, is running a Kickstarter for three separate anthologies right now! If you pledge at the right level, you’ll get copies of these anthologies, too!

And for you writers out there? If the Kickstarter funds, there will be an open call for submissions to all three anthologies! This is a great venue for getting your first publication or adding to your publication list for newer authors.

Here are the anthologies currently being funded:

THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING

HUMANITY:

In this follow-up to THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY, we switch our attention to how the deities of old have managed to fit themselves into today’s modern world! Is Narcissus an Instagram influencer? Is Coyote playing the stock market? Does Ra own a solar panel company? Was Dr. Ruth really Venus? How have the gods and goddesses managed to survive alongside cell phones and computers and social media influencers? We invite authors to explore how the immortals have changed with the times.

Edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors (and the gods they may use) include:

  • Alma Alexander (Freyja: Nordic),
  • David Farland (Woden/Odin: German),
  • Tanya Huff (Hera: Greek),
  • Juliet E. McKenna (Nemesis/Themis: Greek),
  • Phyllis Irene Radford (Anshar/Tiamet: Babylonian),
  • Laura Resnick (assorted),
  • Kari Sperring (Cigfa, Goewin, Gwydion: Welsh),
  • Jean Marie Ward (Dionysus: Greek), and
  • Edward Willett (Ninkasi: Sumerian)

DERELICT:

No one can resist the mystery of the abandoned ship–whether it’s the ghost ship found afloat at sea in the Bermuda Triangle or the spaceship drifting in the depths of space a la the movie Alien. What happened to the crew? What horror forced them to abandon their vessel and flee…or are they still on board, trapped or even all dead? In this anthology, we want authors to explore all of the possibilities when one runs across…a DERELICT.

Edited by David B. Coe & Joshua Palmatier, DERELICT will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:

  • Jacey Bedford,
  • Alex Bledsoe,
  • Gerald Brandt,
  • Julie E. Czerneda,
  • Kate Elliott,
  • John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell,
  • D.B. Jackson,
  • Gini Koch,
  • Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, and
  • Kristine Smith

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:

Throughout history, different cultures have collided in different ways, whether it be the peaceful contact between Rome and Han China in the second century that established the Silk Road, or the more violent interactions between Europe and the Americas thirteen hundred years later. Such first contact stories have long been a staple of speculative fiction. The stories featured in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will continue this long tradition as the authors explore the myriad ways in which two cultures—alien or fae, machine or human—can clash. Will the colliding societies manage to peacefully coexist after they finally meet? Or will they embark instead on a path of mutual self-destruction? Find out—WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.

Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors include:

  • S.C. Butler,
  • Esther Friesner,
  • Auston Habershaw,
  • Steven Harper,
  • Nancy Holzner,
  • Howard Andrew Jones,
  • Stephen Leigh,
  • Violette Malan, and
  • Alan Smale

So what are you all waiting for? This is you pre-ordering three great collections AND giving yourself the opportunity to submit to them! (To say nothing of any pledge rewards or stretch goals involved!) Get going!

Pledge today!

When They Point the Canon at You

Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.

I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:

“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”

Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.

I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.

How much homage must we pay to the past, exactly? And why?

Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.

Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!

That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.

The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.

Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.

In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.

But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.

Writing Updates!

Hi, everyone!

Well, Graphic Audio keeps rolling along, releasing further books in The Saga of the Redeemed! Right now you can get your hands on both No Good Deed and Dead But Once (books 2 and 3) and I have on good authority that the final book in the series – The Far Far Better Thing – will be releasing soon (in two parts).

Check them both out!

ALSO:

Zombies Need Brains has asked me to be an “anchor author” for their new and upcoming anthology, When Worlds Collide. Here’s the skinny on that one:

Throughout history, different cultures have collided in different ways, whether it be the peaceful contact between Rome and Han China in the second century that established the Silk Road, or the more violent interactions between Europe and the Americas thirteen hundred years later. Such first contact stories have long been a staple of speculative fiction. The stories featured in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will continue this long tradition as the authors explore the myriad ways in which two cultures—alien or fae, machine or human—can clash. Will the colliding societies manage to peacefully coexist after they finally meet? Or will they embark instead on a path of mutual self-destruction? Find out—WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.
Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors include:
  • S.C. Butler,
  • Esther Friesner,
  • Auston Habershaw,
  • Steven Harper,
  • Nancy Holzner,
  • Howard Andrew Jones,
  • Stephen Leigh,
  • Violette Malan, and
  • Alan Smale

They will be running a Kickstarter soon to fund the project – I’ll of course be promoting it here. In the meantime, you writers out there should start sharpening your short fiction game and submit to this and the other anthologies that ZNB has coming up. I’d love to share a table of contents with you all!

Thanks, and I’ll be posting again soon!

Saga of the Redeemed, Part 2 – Now Available on Graphic Audio!

Hello, all my isolated friends.

Feeling lonely? Want an escape? Well, I’ve got the perfect getaway! The good folks over at Graphic Audio who specialize in creating super cool audio dramas (with a full cast, musical score, sound effects – the works!) have just released part 2 of my Saga of the Redeemed, titled Iron and Blood.

It’s the second half of the first book (The Oldest Trick), which continues the story of Tyvian Reldamar, rogue duelist and dastardly smuggler, in his quest for revenge while saddled with a magic ring that just won’t let him do anything evil. If you missed the first part, you can get that from Graphic Audio here.

There’s swordfights, man-eating gnolls, wizard’s duels, ancient ruins, conspiracies, found families, and so much more! And if you listen to these two and can’t wait for the next one? Well, the whole series is complete and available in book form, on sale everywhere fine e-books are sold.

So, help me help you by getting these excellent fantasy stories into your hands as soon as possible! Click on the links! You won’t regret it!

 

The Hierarchy of Orcdom

Disclaimer: what follows is some world-building notes from a fantasy setting I’ve been developing for the past year or two, primarily in short fiction.

As my captors will never deign to write their history themselves, let alone read it, I, Yrelliel Dawnsbreath, the last of the the elves, take up my quill and scratch this missive in the diluted blood of my own people. So that people, one day, may know.

The wars were lost. This much is obvious. The kingdoms of humanity were crushed, the dwarven empire ground to dust, and the immortal courts of the elves slaughtered and forgotten. This was over a century ago now, though the pain of it is still keen. Know you the old human proverb, “time heals all wounds?” Not so for the children of the twilit world – we elves remember. We remember as it was yesterday, and for all time. I envy my ancient human friends now, long sent to their rest, leaving scarcely a ghost to haunt me.

But my monitor – a hobgoblin named Fether – grows anxious. He believes me to be writing something I ought not, which indeed I am. How fortunate I am that he cannot read my calligraphy. Oh, how my mother would laugh. She always found my penmanship abysmal. Now, after the world I knew has ended, how funny it is that such terrible handwriting would serve as my primary defense.

But, to business.

All orcs are born goblins. This was not commonly known in the World Before, but now it occupies my thoughts at all times. The species, which we once thought four distinct races, is really one. How arrogant of us to never learn this. How steep the cost of such pride.

Goblins are wretched creatures. Usually discarded by their mothers shortly after birth, they grow quickly into vicious, adaptable little creatures who know nothing but hunger and terror in equal measures. But I will say this: their cruelty is not genetic. Many have been the young goblins set to bring me food or spy upon my rest or run this or that errand of my captors who has looked at me not with revulsion and hatred, but with curiosity and wonderment. I see in their red-rimmed gaze the same innocence and eager energy I remember among human children, though goblins are physically the most superior children ever born. By the age of five summers they can sprint as well as any elf I can recall, and their nimble little fingers are capable of great feats of ingenuity.

Goblins survive on their wits and their will alone. Orc society shows them little mercy. They are servants, slaves, and even more wretched things in this world, and it twists them to become their worst selves or, as is often the case, kills them before they can ever amount to anything worthwhile.

The species is always growing, always feeding. The more a goblin eats, the larger they get. Eventually, they grow large enough to depart the title of “goblin” altogether, though when exactly this occurs is subject to some debate, I gather. In any event, food is strictly controlled, strictly rationed. Only those goblins that prove themselves worthy of their masters’ affection are fed, and the rest eat only what they can steal. If they are very lucky, they become hobgoblins.

Hobgoblins are the managers of orc society. Their chief responsibility lies in keeping the labor force (the goblins) in line, by lash or by hook. They are granted greater privileges by their orc masters – regular meals, a degree of protection from other orcs, access to equipment and training. Aboard a leviathan, hobgoblins act as reliable foot soldiers, as only they have a degree of loyalty to their orc masters. Like goblins, they are clever and ingenious, devising the vast bureaucracy that allows Orcdom to function and constructing the huge machines that gave it the capacity to overcome the world of old. If they are met with success, they are permitted to attend the feasting table of their orc master and are showered with food. In time, should they continue to impress their masters, they will soon grow large enough to become an orc themselves.

The orcs, of course, are the warlords, rulers, tyrants, and masters of this society. Huge, bulky, violent, and only occasionally cunning, they live for conquest, whether in the military or civilian arenas. Their hunger is, of course, their defining feature. Whatever civilized traits they once possessed have long since been beaten out of them by their hardscrabble climb to the top of the social pyramid. They are without imagination, as imagination is seen as a threat to their society. There are no artists in this world of theirs. No poets. Scarcely any scholars worth the name.

Just an elf with poor penmanship chained in a tower.

There is, of course, one more evolution beyond that of the orc. It is rarely spoken of in orc society, as the orcs fear what the greatest among them become. Should an orc be unusually successful, whether at war with other tribes or even as a merchant or ruler or otherwise, and should they gorge themselves on feasts that would embarrass even the most gluttonous human king of old, they will, of course, continue to grow. As they grow – and indeed along their whole history of growth, from their birth as a goblin onwards – their hunger becomes more and more part of who they are. The orcs are balanced (barely) between the intelligence of their former self and the barbaric hunger that has gotten them this far. For trolls, they have fallen off the precipice.

Trolls are gigantic creatures, standing ten or even fifteen feet tall and weighing as much as four or five horses. They are nothing but unrestrained appetite, eating everything they come across, regenerating even the most grievous wounds, and leaving behind them a trail of destruction. They are a thing apart in orc society – more beast that being – and bear with them a kind of religious awe. Indeed, I have heard of whole troops of dispossessed goblins, hobgoblins, and even orcs that follow in their wake, worshiping the passing of the troll and feasting upon that which was left behind. These fanatical bands are a scourge upon the order of this society, but one that Orcdom insists is necessary, for some reason. I cannot understand it. In my old life I would not have wished to. But now?

Now, there is little I have to do but to understand this new world in which I live. To marvel at its perversity and its strange vitality. And to write it so that my orcish captors will never truly know what I write of them.

New Story Out in This Month’s F&SF (and other writing news)

Hello, friends!

Great news! My short story “Three Gowns for Clara” (the tale of Cinderella from the POV of a local seamstress) is out now in the January/February issue of F&SF. I’m very proud of this story – I think it is some of my best work yet – and I encourage you all to check it out! You can subscribe to F&SF via the link I just put there or find the issue on newsstands (assuming newsstands are still a thing somewhere).

In other news, I’m going to be attending Boskone this February 14th-16th in Boston. I’m going to be on a lot of panels on Friday and Saturday and I’ll have a reading somewhere in there, too, and I’d love to see you! Come and check it out – Boskone is a great con and I look forward to it every year. You can see a mini-interview with me on their website here and see what my opinions are on Inspector Gadget’s hat (spoiler: they are unreservedly positive).

Finally, I continue pressing on with the novel writing, and hopefully I’ll have a draft of one to my agent by the end of the week. Short fiction writing also continues at its typical slow, slow pace. If I have any further news, you’ll be hearing it here first!

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Monday.

 

The Saga of the Redeemed–in Audio Format! Coming Soon!

So cool! Check them out – they have LOTS of titles!

Hello, friends!

So, when I tell people I write novels, one of the most common responses I get is “are they available in audio book?” My answer, sadly, has been a reluctant “no.”

That is, until NOW!

Well, no, not exactly now – soon.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of my agency, I’ve secured a deal with Graphic Audio to produce The Saga of the Redeemed in audio format! And not only audio format – Graphic Audio basically does audio dramas. Full cast recording! Sound effects! Music! It all sounds so, so cool. I absolutely cannot wait to hear Tyvian, Artus, Myreon, and Hool (and Sahand! And Lyrelle!) come to life!

Anyway, it’s early days yet – there’s no set release date, though it seems very possible part one will be available sometime in 2020 – and I’ll be certain to keep you posted on how things develop. But I wanted to let you all know, because it’s just SO AWESOME!

Soon, none of you will have any excuse not to read my books. None. They’re going to be like little movies that can play in your brain, and who doesn’t love that!

Anyway, back to work. Talk to you later!

I’m on PodCastle! Read/Listen to “The Masochist’s Assistant” Right Now!

Hi, friends!

My story “The Masochist’s Assistant” is now up on PodCastle. It’s a free audio production of my work and it, more generally, a fabulous site if you dig fantasy (and check out companion sites PseudoPod and Escape Pod for all your horror and scifi needs, too). I’m very proud of this story (which was originally published in F&SF) and narrator Matt Dovey has done an excellent job reading it! Do check it out if you’ve got a chance!

Also I’m going to be in Dublin for WorldCon very soon! If you’re there too, I hope we cross paths. I’ll be sitting on a couple panels (both on Saturday – one on Improv and its uses for Writing and one on Luddites of SciFi) and it should be a great time. I’ll be traveling a lot leading up to the con, so I won’t be posting here until afterwards. I’ll see you all in Dublin and, barring that, I’ll let you all know how it goes!

Later!

New Story Out: “What the Plague Did To Us” in Galaxy’s Edge

Hey, everyone! I’ve got a new short story out (well, a flash story – it’s very short) out in this July 2019 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. I’m in a great issue, too, alongside such brilliant writers as Robert J Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Kevin J Anderson, Gregory Benford, and more! The best part is this: for this month only, you can read my story and others for free online! Just go to the website and check it out!

My story is my take on the zombie apocalypse and it is like, maybe, 1500 words, so you have no excuse not to read it. Go and check it out now!

About Readercon:

So, Readercon this past weekend was a lot of fun, even though I was only there for one day. I saw two very interesting and engaging talks, one by Graham Sleight about Instrumentality and Science Fiction (is SF useful as a predictive tool for the future) and one by Austin Grossman about the origin of genre. Both fascinating, both mixtures of things I didn’t know and things I did, and both of which I’ll be chewing over for a while.

I was on a panel about World’s Worst Jobs that was great, great fun and I heard a bunch of crazy stories (and got to tell one, too). I gave a reading from Dead But Once that had a small audience, but was well received. To wrap it all up, I went to the launch party for Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War, which just sounds like an amazing book you should all go out and buy right now.

So, overall a great experience at another great Readercon!

Writing Updates

I continue working through the summer on not just one novel, but two. Well, in truth, the first draft of the first novel I wrote this summer crashed and burned last week and I need to let the wreckage settle while I consider how to make another attempt (probably not until after Christmas). So I’m working on a second one now, which I won’t have time to finish before the Fall Semester kicks in, but I’m hoping I can at least get a sizeable chunk done. What kinds of books are they? Well, the first is a gritty space opera full of bizarre aliens and no humans whatsoever and the second is a more humorous thing set in a modern mall involving mythical creatures. So, in other words, totally different things. Is this good? Bad? Unwise? I don’t know. My agent seems to think it will be fine, but one wonders nevertheless.

In any event, onward and upward! Talk to you folks soon!