Archive for July, 2012


As an author, you often hear that you should pick a genre and stick with it.

Does anyone else find this as impossible as I do?

I love speculative fiction. ALL speculative fiction. And, going back to Thursday’s post, it’s so hard to separate the genres out completely anyway.

Fantasy, for example, is such a ginormous genre. You could pick a subgenre to stay in – epic fantasy, for example – but that’s got to get boring after a while. But say you pick fantasy. You can write anything as long as it’s fantasy.

But then you find yourself venturing into Steampunk. Hmmm, well, technically Steampunk can go either fantasy or scifi, so you might be okay, but it’s a slippery slope from there and before you know it, you’ve got a deep space exploration series going and you’re three books in.

You could argue that “speculative fiction” counts as sticking to a genre, but again, very large range of stuff. If you write both romantic fantasy and hard science fiction, I can pretty much guarantee that not all your readers are going to read all your stuff. And that is, of course, the point of sticking to a genre – reader loyalty. If you always write cozy mysteries, then your readers KNOW your new book is a cozy mystery, and they will pick it up without a second thought.

If you write both thrillers and romance, your readers are going to have to do research on each new book to see if fits their tastes. It cuts down on automatic sales, and it cuts down on sales overall, because people are lazy and they may never get around to doing that research.

So, that’s the argument for genre stability.

That being said, I can’t seem to manage it.

I actively write paranormal, science fiction, horror, and several subgenres of fantasy. My shorts tend to be more purely speculative – near-future SF and bordering on magical realism horror/paranormal. My longer stuff tends to branch out into epic and urban fantasy, though there’s no real rhyme or reason to any of it.

If a story comes into my head and I want to write it, I do.

Am I screwing myself over by not committing? I have no idea. But the idea of stuffing myself into a box, and staying in there – not fun.

(And judging by the fact that scifi/fantasy authors often branch out into related and new subgenres – everyone else seems to be in agreement.)

What do you think, Squiders?


Where’s the Line Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Answer: is there one?

Kit, you say, of course. One has aliens and the other has elves.

Both of which are made-up creatures that have no basis in reality. So where’s the difference again?

Kit, you say, one has space travel and one has magic.

Well, as we recently discussed, some people think that space travel isn’t possible and any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic.

Kit, you say, one is used to extrapolate what will happen to us as a species in the future, and one…has dragons.

Really? Are you going to sit there and tell me that fantasy doesn’t deal with human nature in situations that we may never actually experience?

Let’s look at Star Wars. Scifi, right? It takes place in space, there are spaceships and aliens. But – it follows a classic hero’s journey, a fantasy staple, AND there’s a magical ability called the Force. How does it work? Midochlorians. And how do midochlorians work? Magic, essentially. Plus light sabers are fancy swords. Star Wars is a lot closer to Lord of the Rings than Ringworld.

In my head, you can’t really separate the two genres. Instead there’s sort of a speculative fiction sliding scale. On one end you have the hard science fiction – Rendezvous with Rama, for example – and on the other end you have epic fantasy, like the Wheel of Time. And then everything else falls somewhere in the middle, with things like Pern and Incarceron sitting about halfway.

And actually, if you want to take this scale further, you can make a triangle with paranormal or horror being the third point, and then you can stick a work of speculative fiction somewhere between all three. Horror’s a bit hard to incorporate, because while a lot of it includes speculative elements of some sort (experiments gone wrong, aliens, things that go bump in the night) you also have the slasher subgenre which doesn’t particularly fit.

But! My point is that there’s not really a line. There’s no hard and fast rules you can make that will adequately separate the two from each other. There’s too many works that straddle the line and could go either way. For each rule, there’s a dozen rule-breakers.

Do you agree, Squiders? If not, where would you put the line?

Travel Between Worlds – Scifi or Fantasy?

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about getting on a spaceship and jetting about the galaxy. It’s pretty clear which that one is. (Unless the spaceship runs on unicorns and rainbows, I suppose. …and now I want to write that.)

We’re talking wardrobes, portals, holes in the ground, white rabbits.

Sounds fairly typically fantasy, right?

A character or group of characters stumbles onto some sort of mechanism that takes them somewhere else. No explanation, just one second you’re home and the next you’re some place full of strange people and creatures and truffula trees.

But the thing is – most of the time, no explanation is ever offered as to how or why the portal is there or how it works at any point in the story. We assume genre based on what the character(s) find on the other side. If it’s card soldiers or talking lions, we assume fantasy. If it’s a strange, other-worldly environment with fifteen moons, we assume scifi.

Some things are obviously one or the other. Some sort of explanation is offered. The faerie world is separated by a magical border, closed most of the time to mortals. The Stargate requires coordinates to be input through a computer before the portal opens.

But let’s take Peter Pan, for example. How do you get to Neverland? You think a happy thought and fly to the second star to the right, and then straight on until morning. Scifi or fantasy? (Oh, probably fantasy, but it’s very ambiguous. You could make an argument of it, if you were up to it.)

Some people will make the argument that it all runs on magic and thus is fantasy, but as the great Arthur C. Clarke said,any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Like so many things in speculative fiction, it probably depends on author intent.

(But then you get into Science Fantasy and oh God everything is so confusing.)

The Trend of Using Authors As Characters

I was tempted to have this post’s title rival Tuesday’s, but then I got lazy.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend of using real people – authors particularly – as characters in novels. I guess it was only a matter of time. Once you get past some of History’s most iconic works and characters, people start to fantasize about the people who created them. And from there, it’s a very short step to writing novels about said people.

Admittedly, we’ve stolen historical figures for our own uses for millennia, but this whole authors as book characters thing feels very meta to me. Yo, dawg, I heard you like books, so I put books in your books in your books and so forth. It is both creepy and awesome.

Creepy because these were real people who managed to create wonderful stories and characters that have stuck with us for generations, and we’re just using them to suit our own needs. Awesome because hey, we’ve got some pretty good storytellers of our own, and it’s neat to see what they do with our treasured ancestors.

Mysteries seem to do this more than other genres. Hey, so-and-so was awesome, but you know what would be EVEN BETTER? IF THEY FOUGHT CRIME. The caps were totally necessary. Jane Austen solves mysteries. Oscar Wilde solves mysteries. They get entire series! And we read them because we love their work and we like to pretend that they had wild, exciting lives.

But I’ve seen it branch out more now. There’s a MG fantasy series starring – who else – JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Charles Williams. So now, to go even more meta, we have genre stories using authors as characters in the genre that said author wrote.

Say that five times fast.

Aside from series, there’s also individual books – The Dante Club springs to mind, which is a lovely mystery/thriller about Longfellow and Co. translating The Divine Comedy into English and having to solve a series of murders that are using Dante’s work as inspiration.

What’s your take on this phenomenon, Squiders? Any series/books that you’ve read that you’d recommend? Do you think it’s weird or awesome to use real people as characters?


Why is Speculative Fiction More Acceptable for TV Than Books?

Aside from being an obnoxiously long title for a blog post, have you noticed this? You’re talking to someone about the latest big science fiction movie. They’re excited for it. So you’re like, oh, hey, a kindred soul, and ask if they’ve read the latest book by big name science fiction author.

And they give you a look and say something about those books being for nerds.

Admittedly, some of this comes down to the fact that more people go to the movies/watch TV than read books in general, but there seems to be this strange double standard where watching science fiction/fantasy shows and movies are acceptable, but reading the same things make you a giant geek.

There will occasionally be break-outs from this, usually after a show or movie comes out and people enjoy it and decide to go back to the source material, ala Game of Thrones or the Hunger Games. But so often, these same people will be quick to tell you that they don’t read “that kind of book.”

So, what’s the big deal? Why are dragons and aliens okay when you can see them, and not when you have to picture them in your own head?

Part of this is experience. If someone is, say, an action fan, when they see a preview for the next action fantasy movie, they can see the action. When they pick up a book, they may not be able to make that transition, to understand that a book may contain the same action. So they read things like thrillers, not understanding that a lot of what they like can be found in speculative fiction too.

Some of it is bias. How many articles of pop culture show the nerd, head deep in some fantasy book, playing D&D with his equally nerdy buddies? It’s an untrue stereotype but, unfortunately, it’s one that’s continuously propagated. No one wants to be equated as a socially-awkward loser. If someone says he’s going to go see the new Star Trek movie and his friend says, “Dude, really?” then he can say, “Did you see that explosion, bro?” and it’s all okay. Harder to demonstrate in printed form.

I find it all rather sad. People are missing out on potential enjoyment because they’re unwilling to give it a chance.

What do you think, Squiders? Further theories on why this is? Or do you disagree with me entirely?

In Defense of Fantasy: Multiple Sentient Species

Let’s look at Earth. We have exactly one sentient species: us. Humans. (Although, it can be argued that other advanced species – elephants, gorillas, dolphins, whales – are sentient, depending on what particular factors one’s looking at. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say sentient in this case means regular tool use, complex language, some control over the elements, and self-awareness and consciousness.)

Your average fantasy world, on the other hand, can have several: humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, occasionally dragons, goblins, kobolds, halflings, gnomes, trolls, etc.

These species tend to be on a more or less even footing.

So, how is it that you can have several sentient species on a fantasy planet when science says that competition will limit species of a similar niche?

I know I said the fantasy doesn’t have to follow the laws of science, but on one hand, this is something that bothers me. It may be because a lot of fantasy closely mirrors the real world with the exception of its many species and possible use of magic, so ignoring how evolution works seems a bit odd to me.

The being said, there are ways to have multiple species on the same planet and not break science.

1) You can have them all be related, like emus and ostrichs are related. Common ancestor in the past, isolated populations, etc. This isn’t that hard. Dwarves, for example, typically live underground or in the mountains. In general, most fantasy species come in similar builds and colors, so it’s generally believable.

2) For worlds where you want two widely different sentient species (such as dragons and elves, for example), if you have something that keeps them from competing earlier in the evolutionary phase, such as them being on different continents, or low-birth rates where there’s not a lot of spread, then you’re more likely to have two advanced species come into being.

You can, of course, always make the argument because it doesn’t matter because it’s fantasy. It depends on the reader whether or not they’ll be bothered by it. I don’t tend to worry about it unless there’s a truly ridiculous amount of species or something else stands out as being very strange. I’m more bothered by species that are supposed to be natural but seemingly have no natural reason for existing.

In Defense of Fantasy: Magic vs. Technology

To go in a slightly different direction, this week we’ll be looking at aspects of fantasy that tend to get flak from readers. Unlike science fiction, of course, fantasy doesn’t need to conform to modern-day scientific knowledge, but that can be both an asset and a liability.

Fantasy still has to make sense, after all.

One of the biggest issues you run into with fantasy and making sense is in the magic vs. technology debate. This manifests in a couple of ways:

1) The levels of magic and technology on a single world don’t make logical sense together.
2) People think fantasy can’t have advanced technology because it’s fantasy.
3) People think magic doesn’t have to make sense and so their magic rules make no sense.


Let’s address these one at a time.

1) It’s perfectly fine to have magic and technology co-exist on a world. What is unlikely to happen is that you have widespread, powerful magic combined with rocket-science level technology. If magic can control the weather, why would you create a machine to do the same thing? That need is already filled. But just having both magic and technology is not a deal breaker as long as there’s a reason for both to be at the level they are.

2) Fantasy is an overarcing term that includes most things that are in the least bit fantastical. There does not need to be magic, necessary, so technology is fine. (And I would argue that science fiction falls under the general “fantasy” umbrella, but I know I am a minority in that opinion.) Just because something has technology doesn’t make it science fiction. Thrillers thrive on technology.

3) It was a trend among early fantasy novels to have magic but not explain how it works. This leads to some people thinking that your magic can just do whatever, but in general, you have to do this really really well or you just come out looking like you don’t understand cause and effect. Magic needs to be consistent. (And realistically, there needs to be limits on what it can do, or else you face having your planet destroyed by magical battles on a daily basis.)

So, long story short – you can have both in a single story, as long as they both make sense.

In Defense of Science Fiction: Utopias as Dystopias

This is more something that’s fallen out of favor as opposed to something that people argue scientifically against.

A utopia, by definition, is a perfect society – everyone is happy, cared for, and no one wants for anything.

Dystopias are big right now. (A dystopia is a flawed society, often totalitarian in nature.) Straight dystopias, where it’s obvious that things are wrong. But there’s something about a utopia, because, it turns out, it doesn’t exist.

Utopias thrive on order – there’s no real room for creativity or innovation. Society stagnates. People aren’t given the opportunity to grow. The cogs can only turn in one way to maintain that illusion of perfection.

Utopias (and dystopias) explore society as opposed to technology. They explore questions like – if the people are happy and don’t know any better, is it wrong to leave them in an oppressive environment? What can – and should – be sacrificed for peace?

In this day and age, you’d think that utopian dystopias would be more popular than ever. But instead, we seem to be going for the obvious. Often, in dystopias, the main characters are obviously part of some marginalized part of society. In the Hunger Games, District 12 barely has enough to eat. In Incarceron, the very environment is out to get those who live in it. In City of Ember, the city is falling apart around their heads.

They’re the results of nuclear war, contagion, biological fallout.

Nothing against straight dystopias, but there’s an added level of complexity in utopian dystopias. They look at how we could try to fix things, and how things could seem to be great for a while, but how there’s seemingly no way to actually create a perfect society without destroying something that’s inherently human.

The only I can think of that I’ve read lately is Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which is a sequel/companion novel to the more applicable Oryx and Crake. I can think of several straight dystopias. Anyone read any other utopian dystopias lately?

In Defense of Science Fiction: Aliens

Sure, aliens may not be as endangered in science fiction as time or interstellar travel, but they have their detractors as well.

The possibility of there being other intelligent life in the galaxy is typically defined by Drake’s Equation, but the problem is that there are several variables in the equation, very few of which  are known. (We don’t know how many stars have solar systems, and how many planets are in a habitable zone, etc.)

Drake’s Equation varies wildly based on what you use as inputs.

Even if we ignore Drake’s Equation, alien opponents point out that we’ve been trying for several decades to both contact and find signals from other civilizations, with no answer. They argue that it’s a fluke that life started on this planet, and that even, by some rare possibility, it managed to happen somewhere else, there’s no guarantee that that life would reach sentience in a time frame that would allow them to interact with us.

What does that mean? It means that even if a civilization reached a level of technology to allow for interstellar communication in a form that we could detect, if they did it a million years before or after we were looking, it would all be for naught.

So some people argue that aliens aren’t scientifically realistic. Where’s the fun in that?

The other argument you run into with aliens is what sort of lifeforms they’ll be. Early Star Trek, for example, explores all sorts of strange non-carbon based lifeforms. But some peope say that since all life here on Earth is carbon-based, that it’s unrealistic to think that life can come in bases.

(However, we recently discovered arsenic-based life here on Earth, so you should ignore those people.)

The argument for or against aliens can be compared to the argument for or against God. There’s not really any evidence one way or the other, so why go with the more depressing option? (Though, I suppose if you believe that most aliens are the invasion type, then not believing they exist is the better option.)