Saturday, February 29, 2020

New Directions

     I’ve railed so frequently, and with such vehemence, against unoriginality in speculative fiction – specifically, the endless reuse of worn-out tropes and motifs as the foundation for a novel – that by now my Gentle Readers probably shrink away from the monitor at the hint of a new one. I can easily understand it. Anything repeated sufficiently often will become monotonous, drained of meaning and impact. That would, of course, include the screechings of narrow-gauge sociopolitical commentators who also flatter themselves that they can tell a decent story.

     But hey, a guy’s gotta have a hobby!

     A few months ago, a nonsensical old mantra of the Sixties and Seventies New Left weighed in upon me with disturbing force:

“If you’re not part of the solution,
You’re part of the problem.”

     I can’t explain it, but that phrase – which, in a sociopolitical context, is false nearly all the time – persisted in my thoughts for several days running. I had to ponder it explicitly, with application to the various things I write, to get any peace from it. What problems do I regularly rant about, here or elsewhere? And what solutions, whether of my own proposition or formulated by others, might apply?

     Its pertinence to my sociopolitical commentary briefly eluded me, but once I’d pinned its wings, it pointed me in a new direction: new for me, that is. What, after all, is the prevailing tenor among commentators and pundits? What characteristics does my blather share with them that could make us seem repetitive, unoriginal...boring?

     That’s right: we all talk incessantly about federal politics, and we all take ourselves and our emissions much too seriously.

     Since then, I’ve striven to “lighten up.” I still get drawn into commenting on federal politics much too often – as it’s a quadrennial year with lots of weird goings-on in D.C. and across the nation, it’s a tough lure to resist – but I’ve been trying to be more lighthearted about it. I’ve tried to introduce more humorous material, and to achieve a more humorous approach even to the more serious subjects in the news. The progress has been slow, but changing my lifelong orientation – i.e., as a humorless academic – was bound to take time.

     But it’s in application to my fiction writing that the notion struck home most powerfully.

     I’ve tried my hand at several genres:

  • Contemporary spiritual fantasy;
  • Near-future science fiction;
  • Far-future science fiction;
  • Family saga;
  • Romance;
  • Erotica.

     In each case I’ve tried to do something other writers have not done, or have done so poorly that they might as well not have tried. Whether I’ve succeeded in telling an arresting tale worth its purchase price is for the reader to decide. However, whether I’d managed to deviate significantly from the paths worn smooth by the Thundering Herd of Hacks, Inc. (THH on the NYSE) was my own evaluation to make. In the main I’ve been satisfied, despite modest sales. If I haven’t blazed a wholly new trail, at least (I told myself) I’d found an interesting side track.

     A great part of the reason genuine originality is a risky business is the preference of most readers for something that won’t defy all their preconceptions and developed tastes. For example, while a reader who’s acquired a taste for “hard” (technologically oriented) science fiction is unlikely to be pleased by “soft” (sociologically oriented) SF, he’s likely to be displeased if not offended by a novel billed as hard SF but that shoves its tech elements off to the side in favor of some other focus. Such a reader wants the categorizations to be trustworthy, for he intends to stay within them.

     Yet it is in such crossbred, category-defying stories that one of the paths toward originality lies. Now, there are paths of that sort that I’d advise even the most adventurous writer to avoid: e.g., zombie romance. But even something that absurd deserves at least a glance before shying away in horror (quickly or slowly according to the kind of zombies involved).

     Deviations of another kind are possible, too. Consider “high” fantasy. Such a fantasy usually features magic and wizards or sorcerers who can wield it. It will also tend to omit technology from its setting: a reasonable choice, as a setting in which magic can be used to set the laws of Nature at naught would have little incentive to develop technology as we understand it. There’s a humorous passage from one of Roger Zelazny’s marvelous stories of Dilvish, the Damned to that effect:

     “Tricky,” he said as they moved. “One day they will invent names for the properties of objects, such as the tendency of a thing to move once it is placed in motion.”
     “Of what use would that be?” Reena asked. “Everybody already knows that that’s what happens.”
     “Ah! But one might put numbers to the amount of material involved and the amount of pushing required, and come up with wondrous and useful calculations.”
     “Sounds like a lot of trouble for a small return,” she said. “Magic’s a lot easier to figure.”

     [From “Tower of Ice”]

     Some adventurous writers have explored a technological or semi-technological side trail. Craig Allen’s excellent Beyond the Sky is a striking example. Margaret Ball’s delightful The Language of the Dragon is another. And of course we have the late, great Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos stories at the far end: told in a setting fully as technological as present-day America, but also equipped (or burdened, if you prefer) with magic and supernatural conflict. Such stories won’t appeal to everyone, but that’s always a hazard when one is determined to try something offbeat.

     I’m on the verge of releasing an unusual fantasy novel. Its setting is pre-technological. Sorcery is the tale’s dominant operational motif. But the crisis motif is essentially ecological. The overuse of magic, in an age long past, produced a Dieback that destroyed nearly all life, depopulated the world, and left the surviving pockets of Mankind isolated from one another by a Great Waste. While the Waste can be crossed by one sufficiently well prepared, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s the central task of the sorcerers of that time and place to bring about the re-greening of the world. But they must overcome unique and significant opposition.

     I was reluctant to attempt this novel, but eventually I decided that as a fresh entrant in a field dominated by “quest” stories in the Tolkienian vein, it would be worth the effort. It should be out in a week or so; just now I’m waiting for a proofreader — Margaret, Linda, are you reading this? — to give it the hairy eyeball. Will it appeal to the typical reader of “high” fantasy, accustomed to the quest-schematic Tolkien, Brooks, and their many imitators have followed? No way to know.

     But it’s a thrust in a new direction. If it proves popular, it could result in the emergence of a schematic of its own. At any rate, it’s something un-ordinary. It cost me agonies in the crafting, but I can honestly say it’s my own and not an imitation of someone else’s tale. For me, that is sufficient.

     Have a nice day.


Lord Squirrel said...

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the premise of your latest fantasy outing is very similar to the background of the Dungeons and Dragons Dark Sun setting, which came out in the mid 1990s. As far as I know, there was only one set of novels released (The Prism Pentad by Troy Denning).

-- pre-technological? check -- stone and obsidian are main building materials, metal is scarce, and most labor is done via slavery.

-- sorcery depopulating the planet? check -- sorcerer kings ravaged the world eons ago, transforming themselves into great Dragons that roam the wastelands, devouring all in their path. Magic drains life energy, so people have developed strange psychic abilities instead.

It's a very unique and bizarre setting, which is probably why it wasn't terribly popular, but is still fascinating to explore.

Good luck with your own take on this weird setting!

Francis W. Porretto said...

Well, Squirrel my friend, you'll have to read the book to discover why you're wrong, so rather than expand on the reason I'll just leave the matter there.

Lord Squirrel said...

OK, now I'm intrigued. I'll give it a go...

pdwalker said...

can’t wait.

Amy Bowersox said...

I've been acting as Fran's "alpha reader" of this novel, as I did for Opportunities and The Wise and the Mad. Trust me, this one's good. It has a conception of magic that's unique in my experience, and combines intelligent characters with a fair amount of action, as well as a nice love story. (No spoilers from me, though!)

pdwalker said...

“The Warm Lands” have been bubbling around in Fran’s head for ... what? 20 years?

i’m glad it finally made it to the surface.