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Monday, 31 October 2016

At BristolCon

Apologies for the blurriness of any images, or any clumsiness of layout and balance between text and images. This is the first time I've ever done something like this.

Panelist Cassandra Khaw.
It's Monday, and I'm back from one of the newest science fiction and fantasy conventions in the United Kingdom. BristolCon. Located at the Doubletree Hotel, it is a hive of activity for authors, publishers, agents and sellers dedicated to these genres. There, you attend panels in the two main Programme Rooms dedicated to subjects that vary from year to year, feature stalls from local sellers that feature everything from Jewelry to books to Doctor Who memorabilia, and relax in the Break Room with drinks and Lego, or at the hotel bar (I prefer the break room myself, where this year Bionicle pieces reminded me of its influence on my decision to become a writer). This year's BristolCon was primarily focused on fantasy, with many of its panels delving into the behind-the-scenes features of the genre.

The panels I attended were most interesting. The first, "Not Just Hocus Pocus", focused by and large on systems of magic that do not conform to the systems in Rowling's Harry Potter novels, with their focus on spells and wands. It delved into many areas, but the one that stood out for me was how panelist Sarah Ash (a fellow fan of manga and anime) described her impressions on Ursula le Guin's Earthsea series, with its focus on true names giving power over staffs and lengthy incantations. The second panel, "The Regiment of Monsters?", focused on how the sci-fi and fantasy genres fell into the traps of giving non-human races potentially racists stereotypes (which I have briefly expounded upon in this post on my blog), and how the genres were even to this day being dominated by, as panelist Dev Agarwal said, "the straight white male". The leading picture is of another of the panelists, Cassandra Khaw.

The third panel I attended was "SF&F On the Margins", and it was a big eye-opener for me, as it was aimed at people like me: authors trying to break into a highly competitive market with material that might not suit all tastes and thus would be deemed as a high risk venture for the Big Five publishing houses. Lots of the information there was useful, and I even made notes of a few small press houses I might try within the next year. The next thing I attended, after taking a break, was Sarah Ash's piece called "Sleigh Beggies, Black Dogs and Knavish Spirits", a presentation about the use of British folklore in anime and manga with particular focus to The Ancient Magus' Bride. My final panel was "Under the Covers", a revealing talk about the problems and issues facing book cover artists. Now I know fully that my sister Daisy, who created the covers for my Crystal and Sin series, went through is new.


There are several people at the event who deserve special mention, but I can't unfortunately give all of them names due to my poor memory for names over faces. The first is one (first right) of the organisers, Roz Clave (I think).


The second (first left), depicted here in a very well realised Jedi/Sith outfit, is Pippa Jay. She minded a stall full of interesting books.


The third and final mention (second right) is C. M. Hutt, and I do hope I didn't use her married name by mistake. This was one of the exhibitors in the excellent art room alongside other names such as Andy Bigwood, Margaret Walty, and Chris Moore.

At the request of the latter two, I could not show any photographs featuring their artwork within the art gallery (second left), but Bigwood and Hutt were willing for their artwork to be shown in picture. I have to say the artwork on display here was excellent, with Moore continuing to prove himself a master of the form in the science fiction genre. Walty's artwork was also very fine, with scenes that were both realistic and stylised with natural fantasy landscapes.

On the whole, the event this year was as good if not better than last year, and I found more enjoyment as I was there as a writer trying to learn about the industry and perhaps make contacts (probably not much luck with the latter). The panels were interesting and entertaining, and the people there were interesting and entertaining to talk to. I felt really at home, and felt that I'd gained a bit more understanding for the kind of thing I'm letting myself in for as a writer. I also found their stalls all very tempting, and was tempted by a non-fiction book on samurai available on a stall run by Books On The Hill. By the end of my time there, I was tired by satisfied with an eventful and fruitful time. I just have to make sure my niggles don't corrupt the experience in my memory.

An additional shout-out should be given to the open mike reading that came the evening before, which featured multiple people I later saw at the event. My piece, from my in-progress book The Leviathan Chronicle, was one of four to overrun, and I was just pipped to the post by someone else who was more experienced, probably local, and had a full edited and printed book rather than working from a print-off from an OpenOffice Word document.

Anyone whose a lover of science fiction and fantasy must try to addend this wonderful convention in this wonderful city. It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen all the time, and it's where you'll find a world of genre fiction beyond the bookshelves of WH Smith and Waterstones, beyond the Harry Potters and Eragons of the bestseller list. You'll get a good idea about what this world is like, and how those within it make their living and negotiate the difficult world of the genre author.

Monday, 24 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 3

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In the first part, I discussed racism, and how its fantastic or distant portrayal could create a disconnect with racism as it still manifests in the real world. In the second subdivided part, I covered polytheistic and monotheistic religions and how their portrayals and subsequent impact vary. In this entry, I'm looking at environmental issues.

Environmentalism has become a prevalent subject in fiction and in documentaries. Global warming, deforestation, acid rain... There are any amount of both impartial views and scare films surrounding these. But environmental messages stretch back quite a way in books, television and films, and how they approach it has likewise varied. In this post, rather than looking at a large number of different approaches, I'll be looking at a few and contrasting how they spoke to me about the issues they were tackling. I'm taking them from the realm of film, as they're one of the most readily-accessible and easily-absorbed media of today, and hold clear and powerful examples.

Environmental themes can be interpreted in several ways, but for this entry I'm taking the type where humans are affecting Earth's environment through things like greenhouse gas figures, adversely affecting animal numbers, and deforestation in search of either timber or even mineral or field resources. The most recent film to make use of this element is Avatar, an epic CGI extravaganza from the pen/camera of James Cameron. It portrays (in a fashion very like Disney's Pocahontas) the struggles between a heavily industrialized humanity and the native primitive population of another unspoiled planet, with some Gaia Hypothesis mysticism thrown in. Its take on environmentalism, while mixed in with themes similar to those inspired by the historical exoduses and persecutions of Native Americans, sways heavily towards the preservation of the natural world, even at the potential cost of an entire race that threatens it. In a very non-subtle and preachy way, it treats humans as an invasive pest species to be turfed out.

The 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still also takes this angle, switching from the original's theme of nuclear apocalypse forestalled by an outside agency to a cold evaluation of humanity's overall destructive effect on the environment. It is also highly unsympathetic to the majority of humanity, showing them as contemptible and brutish with a few exceptions where life experience, curiosity or innocence drives them beyond a primal base. Klaatu as depicted in the remake is also highly unconvincing as a saviour for humanity, coming off as someone who is both quick to judge and easy to influence, making the message become corrupted as much of the film is told from his side. Like Avatar, its environmental subtext is delivered in a preachy way, and subsequently fails to drive home anything but a despondent cynicism related to humanity's future and ability to grow.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are many works by Hayao Miyazaki, who has very firm views on humanity and the preservation of the natural world. While Nausicaa of the Valley of the WindPom Poko, Castle in the Sky and Ponyo show these themes strongly, his most nuanced and decided expression of his environmental feelings is Princess Mononoke. Set in Medieval Japan, when modern gunpowder weapons were just beginning to be introduced, it shows its environmentalism through both a clash of cultures in the Emishi princes Ashitaka and the Honsho population of Irontown, and the conflict between the humans led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi and the Kami and Yokai (or "Mononoke") of the forest. The film's resolution is in stark contrast with Avatar, with the main conclusion being a truce between humans and the supernatural, with Ashitaka leading the humans towards finding balance while his new friend/love San tends to her natural forest realm.

A film that I enjoyed, and that tells these themes in a recognizable way, is The Day After Tomorrow, a film by Roland Emmerich that uses humanity's unwitting influence on the climate as a backdrop for a personal tale rather than the be-all end-all of the story. The basic premise is that global warming has triggered violent climate shifts that have triggered a new Ice Age following a thermohaline shutdown. This does place humanity as the main cause, but it also shows how humans pull together in the face of such a terrible event. It also just tells the simple story of a father's journey to save his son, and that son's struggles to survive in the growing snow and ice. This presentation makes the entire scenario seem real, and thus drives it home with a bit more force.

Strangely enough, environmentalism hasn't softened over the years it's become part of the recurring thematic material used by writers in all media, but their differing ranges of nuance and bluntness had provoked different reactions. From the likes of Avatar and the new The Day The Earth Stood Still, it comes across as someone shouting off-key through a megaphone, which always makes me want to cover my ears rather than listen. With the original Princess Mononoke and The Day After Tomorrow, the message feels more gently and skillfully delivered, and you feel like you're listening to something important. There are other films of its like out there, such as Emmerich's similar but later 2012, the fairly morbid The Road, the pinprick message in the fourth Star Trek film, and many more - but the four I've mentioned above show the two extremes that have come to dominate, and I leave it to you to judge which can best change our ways, and shift our beliefs.

Next week is the start of a hiatus from this particular series, as I head off to BristolCon. My next post will be about my experiences there, and my impression on what's going on.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 2-B

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In the first part, I discussed racism, and how its fantastic or distant portrayal could create a disconnect with racism as it still manifests in the real world. In this post, I'm talking about a topic that is still sensitive even in these modern times - religion.

Religion has been with us for thousands upon thousands of years, from ancient stone figures and carvings (we assume) to the complex divine hierarchies of India and Greece, and on to the resurgence of monotheism over the past four thousand years. Today, all religions are fair game for writers, and they run varying risks when taking them and adapting them to tell a story. Whether it be direct adaption of classic tails, or using it as backdrop for an original tale, religion has been approached in numerous ways, good and bad. And... this is a very large subject, so I'm having to subdivide it into two posts. One is devoted to polytheism, and one to monotheism. This one is for monotheism.

Monotheism is the opposite of polytheism - instead of worshiping or acknowledging the existence of a pantheon, there is only a single deity. The most well-known examples of monotheism stem from the Middle East, particularly the Abrahamic family of faiths that include Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Through circumstances too complicated for a single blog post, these faiths became the main faith of Europe, and due to the Crusades and later colonization of various parts of the world, it has become the dominant faith of the world through sheer landmass covered as opposed to people worshiping (in that sense, maybe Taoism, while limited to China, has more active worshipers).

Now, as might be clear, this being the dominant and sometimes dogmatic system that it is, it was difficult for people to do anything constructive around it for the longest time. The simplest thing to do is just adapt it faithfully from the texts created, both canon and non-canon. Earlier works on this theme include Paradise Lost, the famous poem charting Lucifer's journey to Eden and the origin of original sin, and The Divine Comedy, where the author Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on a journey of absolution - and of course gets to rip into his political rivals in the process. There are modern works in multiple mediums surrounding this system: , the comic book adaptation Constantine,

The rarer type are works that take a look at this faith and may be criticizing it, or even turning it on its head for dramatic effect. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is one of the best modern examples of constructing a critique of religion within a fantastical setting. The religion, and its background reality, is based heavily on the Catholic Judeo-Christian tradition. It actively questions the existence of anything that could be called "God", and turns original sin into something different, a quality to be admired. This take has garnered both praise and condemnation depending on whose read it. The third and final book in particular is filled with allusions to or direct parodies of Catholic tradition. This religious reversal may merely serve as a frame for Pullman's retelling of Paradise Lost, but it still holds some interesting views and lessons about organised religion.

This reversal of religion is used in a more general and twisted way in the Drakengard series. While the English release is seated firmly within the concepts of large pantheons and otherworldly abominations, the original Japanese uses the monotheistic system. "God" created the world and all things in it, and seeks to destroy humanity due to their ungovernable ego. The world's dragons are His servants, acting as the equivalents of demons to his "Angels". This reversal of God wanting to destroy humanity isn't anything new, but it's also an interesting parallel of how angels and demons treat humans. The "Angels" (Watchers in English), loyal to their God, seek to destroy humanity. The entire Megami Tensei series can also be seen as an examination of the nature of God and divinity.

Now what's the point of this two-post piece covering the two different religious systems? The use of these different religions has varied in tone and strength over the history of fantasy, science fiction and its hybrid genres. While pantheon systems have mostly fallen out of use and thus become the active go-to for authors, the monotheistic systems that have arisen are far more active and have a lot of vocal and fanatical followers. Works that can be taken as open critiques or negative portrayals, such as His Dark Materials or Dan Brown's thriller The DaVinci Code are thus called out and condemned. The above examples from the land of the Rising Sun demonstrate a prevalent example in Japanese fiction - Monotheistic systems are used more freely in fiction than in the West. Principally because Abrahamic faiths were excised during the Tokugawa shogunate, and have yet to gain a strong foothold in the country.

The different views of the different religion affect how they are treated in fiction where writers try to put in themes and messages. When using pantheons, there's less flack directed if you want to do something edgy, but it's also distanced from the reader as these aren't anything they care about except in a very distant way. For monotheism, if you do the same thing, it strikes home (at least if it's well done) but it also open for being blasted to pieces by the faithful. Of course there's the get-out clause of just using such systems as inspiration and taking a purely fictional take on it. That's still open to the same problems, but of course the impact is further distanced by it just being a fictional rewrite of something. Surely nothing that's to do with our world, no matter how many purges, instances of bigotry, or Crusades they portray...

Next week, in Part 3, I'll be looking at environmental issues, something that has exploded in popularity with the advent of green culture and the full recognition of mankind's destructive potential, and how it has been portrayed in both crass and subtle ways.

Monday, 17 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 2-A

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In the first part, I discussed racism, and how its fantastic or distant portrayal could create a disconnect with racism as it still manifests in the real world. In this post, I'm talking about a topic that is still sensitive even in these modern times - religion.

Religion has been with us for thousands upon thousands of years, from ancient stone figures and carvings (we assume) to the complex divine hierarchies of India and Greece, and on to the resurgence of monotheism over the past four thousand years. Today, all religions are fair game for writers, and they run varying risks when taking them and adapting them to tell a story. Whether it be direct adaption of classic tails, or using it as backdrop for an original tale, religion has been approached in numerous ways, good and bad. And... this is a very large subject, so I'm having to subdivide it into two posts. One is devoted to polytheism, and one to monotheism. This one is for polytheism.

Due to the severe decline in the active worship of polytheistic religions in the West and Near East, these have become the favourite subject of authors creating both science fiction and fantasy. Egyptian deities provide very rich fruit. From the mystical influences of The Mummy and its derivatives, to the pseudo-scientific beings in Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness. In the latter, figures straight out of Egyptian myth and legend enact a grand plot infused with elements from both the fantasy and science fiction genres. This is a recurring element in Zelazny's work, and can also be seen with Hinduism in Lord of Light, Norse lore in The Mask of Loki, and multiple different schools of thought and myth in The Dream Master.

Greek and Roman myth has sourced some truly amazing works, although it has also sometimes fallen into the rut of taking a more Westernised approach to them rather than staying true to the source. Greek myth and legend has inspired many of the works of Mary Renault, the saga of how the gods battle each other is told as a teen adventure in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, monsters from multiple myths have been liberally borrowed for books, films and video games aplenty. Clash of the Titan is one of the best-known film versions of the Perseus myth, although it slightly bowdlerizes the childish aspects of the Olympians, and doesn't stay true to what the Titans were. The modern version strays even further away from the source. It's strange to see it, but it's only the God of War video game series that's gotten anywhere close to accurately portraying what the gods and goddesses were really like.

The use of Norse and Germanic myth and legend is highly prevalent, as it lends itself well to dramatic adaptation. From the original Eddas to later sagas and even Beowulf, Norse and Germanic elements have a strong hold on modern literature. A major operatic work that uses this system is Wagner's The Ring of Nibelung, which retells the fable of the fallen Valkyrie Brynhildr. The motif of Ragnarok (Old Norse) or Gotterdammerung (German), a final climactic battle, is seen in the greater majority of fiction. Celtic myth has also sourced many great authors' works, with Alan Garner's Wierdstone trilogy drawing extensively from that system and its associated symbolism - from the non-human races to the three-sided links between Susan, the Morrigan, and the Lady of the Lake. These links are also present in Arthurian myths, which have become a genre in themselves.

Far Eastern belief systems are their own giant resource. Chinese mythology is complicated and intertwined with their rigid social system and long-standing association of royalty with divinity. An interesting series of books that uses this is the underappreciated and overlooked The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. Spanning three books - Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentleman - Hughart tells of the adventures of the titular protagonists through a world inspired by Chinese myth. Another author who uses Oriental myth is Roberta Ann MacAvoy, the most notable of these being Tea with the Black Dragon. Japanese myth is something that's a bit more difficult to pin down, principally because the country was isolated for so long and it has its own burgeoning and imaginative media. There are a few, I'm sure, but none that have really stood out for me (yet).

Other mythologies have likewise been used, although not as clearly or prominently. A very interesting take on the confusing mass of religions with multiple deities is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Each deity encountered is a manifestation of humanity's belief in them, comparable to the Thoughtform element of Tulpa mysticism. The main drive of the plot is how different deities of varying age strive to reconnect with humans, particularly Odin (Mr Wednesday). Some of my own early story ideas were based around this, and inspired me to push forward.

Now pantheon systems are more than useful as they're nowhere near as controversial to work with when compared to what has become the world's most widespread monotheistic systems. Many authors have also combined mythologies within their works, sometimes even playing out as a war between pantheons. A lot of the time, these systems are used as the background to a rip-roaring adventure that can carry people along, which is all well and good. Despite any faults there might be, which will be addressed later, pantheon systems are far, far more open to adaption into fictional literature, and thus don't have nearly so much baggage accompanying them. In most parts of the world.

Tomorrow, for the next part of this subdivided second post, it's Monotheism and the conclusion!

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 1

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In this post, I'm talking about the recurring theme and motif in many pieces of fiction both good and bad; racism.

What is racism? In its most basic form, racism is discrimination against ethnic groups that are not your own, with the most obvious example being white people discrimination against black people. Racism may be deliberate or unconscious, but it's most clearly seen as a kind of view that your people are superior to any other, rendering any other inferior. True life examples of this are the Colonial occupiers of India during the 1800s, the Apartheids of South Africa, and the entire Nazi regime and its fascist derivatives. There are examples of racism in every single society across all of recorded human history, and can often be accompanied with tales of segregation, exile, and in the worst cases genocide authorised by the powers that be. Because of this, it's a fairly clear topic for authors to take up and use as a motif or even the central core of their story.

Racism is a pressing issue in the modern world, and even when you're looking at historical settings like Civil War America, it's very uncomfortable to see how terrible people can be when affected by such a poisonous worldview. That's why many works not directly retelling historical events have chosen to soften the blow by putting it through the lens of fiction. Clear examples can be found in science fiction and fantasy, where aliens in the former and other races in the latter are often the target of racial discrimination.

An example within science fiction is Alien Nation, a film and television series from the late 80s that revolves around "Newcomers" arriving and becoming integrated into the multicultural United States, and the inevitable discrimination they receive for being "not us". This results in the Newcomers often being seen as enemies just because of their differences from humans. In comic books, the entire X-Men universe is based around this lack of understanding and a wish to see enemies in humans who have developed mystical powers through a genetic mutation, something that happens with humans in the real world every day (mutation, I mean). Azimov's Robot series also demonstrates this, but this time in the division between Spacers - humans who have colonised other worlds - and Terrans who live in domed cities and suffer from trade blockades imposed from beyond. This is added to by the Rs, humanoid machines that can walk undetected among people and are feared by one group and mistrusted by the other. Each human side is shown to be as bad as the other, while the Rs are caught in between, trapped by the Three Laws and unable to prevent humans either restraining or abusing them.

Fantasy has far more scope due to the greater ability of people to construct fantastic races. The Underworld films and the Twilight book series show how vampires and werewolves discriminate against each other due to their differences, failing or being arranged to fail by their leaders at finding any common ground. Several depictions of dragons in multiple media also feature this, as while it's not dubbed as "racism", dragons often see themselves as superior to other races and so are tempted to look down on them, something that is directly in line with racist behaviour. The Dragon Age series, while not really featuring dragons as a sentient race, does have multiple races that discriminate against each other in often sickening ways - the Qunari are victimised for their completely foreign social structure, the elves for their presumed ancient crimes and refusal to worship humanity's monotheic Maker, humans for seemingly being narrow-minded or primitive and brutish in the eyes of others; it creates a vicious cycle of continued hatred.

But what all of these instants, and many others, have in common is this; they separate the pressing issues from reality by placing them in an alien environment. Whether it be the domed cities of Earth in The Caves of Steel or the ancient ruins of elven citadels in Dragon Quest: Inquisition, it can be hard to connect to the terrible events and attitudes when they are so far removed. There are some stories that successfully portray this as a serious and uncomfortable issue while maintaining that distance - such as Princess Mononoke and Ben-Hur - most fail to strike that. It's a pity, as those who can't fully communicate it can risk separating our views of racism in fiction from that in real life, and that risks making us unwitting participants in society's continued, unconscious discrimination.

Next week, in Part 2, I'll be looking at religion, and how this sensitive topic has been approached in various fictional works, with an aim to espouse it, analyse it, and criticise it.