Fantasy Maps and Cevalon

There’s an entire subculture of fantasy map-making and world-building, because Tolkein and Gygax together hammered into the genre of epic fantasy literature and gaming the need for a world to have an all-encompassing backstory, including a theogyny.

I’ve been farting around with a fantasy world of my own devising, known as Cevalon, since I was about 14. I’ve even written a novel set in that universe, which I still find interesting, and may, with some extensive editing, see the light of day. More likely, the first novel of that series will be set several thousand years before that. Because I’ve got backstory. I’ve even got the theogyny. It’s a riff off the Hindu Trimurti, with a Mother/Creator Goddess, a Protector God of Craft and Knowledge, and a Destroyer God of Fire and Renewal. There’s a bit of family drama between them, and the Destroyer God is that touch more Satanic, but…

Some of the stories I’ve written for Unnamed Journal, the Tygg and Drea stories — The Dying GoddessThe Barbarian on the Shore, and most recently The Sword in the Cave — are set in this universe. They take place on the periphery, so I’ve kind of expanded the geography of the world. This is as it should be.

For my birthday I got a How-To guide for drawing fantasy maps, which has inspired me to go back to my old maps and kind of rejuvenate them. This has been in my mind for  a while, but I will enjoy nerding out all over it.

I think that’s the trick.

Chaia Nov21 09-32
A totally random map made from Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator. https://azgaar.github.io/Fantasy-Map-Generator/

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Space Opera

If you define fantasy as “a story that cannot occur in the real world”, as this web site does, then you can include sci-fi in that, as sci-fi takes places in worlds unseen and with technology uninvented, and any technology sufficiently advanced functions more or less like magic in the minds of many people.

But I’m not quite sure about that.

There’s definitely a link between sci-fi and fantasy, as both tend to be adventure stories. But Fantasy is by definition “unreal”, while sci-fi is “could be real”. Technology can seem magical, but it isn’t magic.

Which is why people tend to say “Sci-Fi and Fantasy” rather than just “Fantasy”. Related, but not a subset of. Because you can mix them, and the result is known as “Space Opera”.

Or is it? Here’s Tor.com working themselves into a later on the virtues of Space Opera, but holding off on really defining it (or refuting the statement that it’s Fantasy in Space). They talk about color and style, and poetry, but that seems to me a question of style, which is not really ontological.

To me, Space Opera means that there are elements of the universe that rely on speculative technology, space travel, and other Future Tropes, and also elements of the magical and supernatural. Star Wars is the most commonly known expression of this, but I think Dune qualifies even more, because with Dune the mystical/supernatural stands apart, plot-wise, from the tech. The Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu are the institutional expressions of the cleavage.

What’s operatic in Dune is the struggle of Paul to understand himself, as well as the struggle against the Emperor and the Harkonnens. The remainder of the novels deal with the consequences of that struggle through the generations, as the metaphysical singularity represented by Paul is worked through by his son, Leto II, the God-Emperor.

The spice is real, and has a life-cycle, but it’s no less magic for all of that. It enables a mind to fold space and time, to see without seeing. The Worm is God.

If you keep the spice and lose the space travel, you have a struggle amid houses for dominance of the magic thing, which will play out much like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you keep the space travel, and lose the Spice, you have a sci-fi story about assassins and feudal regimes, with human enemies instead of aliens. The elements of each make make the other greater, while remaining distinct.

dune-1159937-1280x0

The Wheel of Time comes to Amazon

Cue all the “At least this series is finished” snark.

Set in an epic world where magic exists but only women can use it, “The Wheel of Time” follows Moiraine, a member of the shadowy and influential all-female organization called the “Aes Sedai,” as she embarks on a dangerous journey with five young men and women across the world. Moiraine is interested in these five “because she believes one of them might be the reincarnation of an incredibly powerful individual, who prophecies say will either save humanity or destroy it,” Amazon said in a statement.

The series draws on numerous elements of European and Asian culture and philosophy, especially Buddhism and Hinduism.

It also… kind of sucks.

Robert Jordan was the American Tolkein before George R.R. Martin was so dubbed, and the Wheel of Time series starts with a bang. It’s a fully realized world with a sprawling backstory, and the idea that magic has two components: one male, one female, but the male half has been poisoned and unusable for millenia, is a neat hook to hang an apocalyptic battle on. The first book was great.

The second book was good.

The third book was… I don’t remember. Let’s say goodish?

The fourth book I remember better than the third book. It was kind of interesting.

I don’t remember the fifth book at all.

I don’t remember the sixth book at all.

I gave up partway through the seventh book.

There are fourteen books in the series.

Jordan’s problem wasn’t production. He dropped 700+-page novels every 2-3 years, regular as clockwork. The longest fans had to wait for the next volume was four years, because Jordan died and Brandon Sanderson finished the series from Jordan’s notes. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire fans would give bloodleeches to Melisandre for that kind of predictability.

The problem was, for all that production, the story moved hardly at all. Whole books would be spent on a single narrative involving a single character, while other characters stayed in limbo. By the time I checked out, halfway through, the Wheels of Time were spinning in the mud.

This reached its culmination in Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in the series, which focuses on what every character but the protagonist was doing (mostly: nothing) while the main character, Rand al-Thor, did a big thing in the previous book. Rand is present for two chapters in CoT, mostly brooding. Or, as one of the thousands (yes, thousands) of negative Amazon reviews has it:

Here is a list of things that DON”T happen in this book.

Mat does not marry Tuon. Perrin does not rescue Faile or Alliandre or Morgase, Rand does not do anything. Elayne does not gain the Rose Throne. Egwene does not re-unite the White Tower. Elaida does not defeat the rebels. No darkfriends are unmasked. No black ajah are unmasked. Morraine does not come back from wherever she has been for the last 8 books. Savanne does not get what is coming to her. No Forsaken are unmasked. Mazrim Taim’s plans do not become clear. Logain’s plans do not become clear. The Seanchan don’t gain victory/defeat on any front. The Great Lord does not break free. Gawain does not join Egwene. I could go on.
What does happen in this novel? Elayne drinks lots of watery tea. Egwene has lots of headaches, Rand lies in bed with Min and wishes he were dead. Loail explains again why he is not ready to settle down. Aviendha wanders around in the buff again. Mat continues to not understand women. Aes Sedai and the Sea Folk, and the Kin continue to argue with one another about every little thing. We continue to get a fashion review of what every woman is wearing, and how much bosom she is showing (typically a great deal). That’s about it.

So, despite the “productivity”, both Martin and Jordan had/have the same unwillingness to finish. Whether this is from greed or simple logorrhea, Jordan could not bring himself to enter the series’ third act. In the end he did not, and another author finished the series for him.

This may be a risky series for Amazon to adapt. On the one hand, the sheer length of the thing begs for a long-form, serial treatment. TV can dig into the nuances of this in a way that movies can’t. But the showrunners will have to make smart choices, or the TV series will get bogged down in the same way the books did. Some of the fluff will need to be cut away, or around Season 10 the fans will be as frustrated and bored with the plot slows and the encyclopedic panoply of minor characters as the readers were.

The other problem is the characters. The world in Wheel of Time is much more intricate and realized than the characters are. The characters barely stand out at all, in fact. All the male characters are varying degrees of dim, and all the female characters varying degrees of shrewish. The symphony of confused grimaces and braid-tugging becomes a chore pretty early in the series, and it never relents. Rand al-Thor doesn’t have Jon Snow’s dogged rectitude, and Egwene lacks Danaerys Targaryen’s heroic passion. The sense of decisions that matter and shift the characters, the sense of life-or-death hanging in the balance, is peculiarly absent. The characters just seem to keep going, and they don’t ever seem to change.

Granted, I checked out half-way through. It may be that a TV series can move credibly through the vast scope of Jordan’s universe and give the characters distinct lives. But I’m probably going to wait on word-of-mouth.

Of Conan and Carver

 

One of the difficulties of approaching art of any kind is learning to drop your prejudices when encountering it. This is true regardless of what class of art you’re talking about. It’s very easy to dismiss something you haven’t read as without value, because if it had value, you’d have already appreciated it, right?

Over the course of this past year, I’ve dropped my attitudes toward two writers, one “highbrow”, one “pulp”, by taking the time to actually read their stuff: Raymond Carver and Robert E. Howard.

11-birdman-st-james-marquee-of-what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-love

Carver I came to via the film Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. It’s a film I’ve enjoyed rewatching, partly for its silly spirit, partly for its full-throttle ranting about Meaning in Art. The plot involves Michael Keaton (playing an alter ego of himself), adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a full-length Broadway play. The story/play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” fairly reeks of that pretentious, mid-century Clifford-Odets-style talkiness that denoted Serious Art About Serious Things. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d enjoy reading less. But exposure to the movie gradually changed that, and I picked up an anthology of his shorts (the one with the same excessive title).

Howard I started reading after picking up some of the Dark Horse Conan comics. I debated buying a Conan collection or a Lovecraft one and decided on the latter because Lovecraft’s painting of his universe is often too grim for my mood. Howard made his creatures of the Outer Dark vulnerable to steel.

img_2863At first glance, you could not pick two more unalike writers: in subject matter and prose styles, Howard and Carver diverge a great deal. One practically birthed the Blood & Thunder style of pulp fantasy, the other worked strictly in American Realism. One spent his career a “lower class” of writer, the other recieved continuous critical acclaim. One created a character who has never left the scene, the other had to be name-dropped in a Oscar-winning film to remind the world of his existence.

And yet.

What struck me about both of these authors is the efficiency of their storytelling. Carver’s stories are brutally laconic; he gives you sufficient detail to sustain a narrative, and nothing more. He cuts to the quick. He covers a single emotion and when he’s covered it, he ends the story. It’s been a tonic for me.

Howard is likewise efficient, regardless of the purpleness of his prose. While Howard will stop to describe the monsters and mazes he puts his hero in, it never slows down the action. Conan stories move with an electric energy, from point to point without stopping to examine the hero’s inner life. This was never the point of them. We are along for the ride through vistas marvelous and terrible, and it all feels real and lived in regardless of how short a time we spend there. Conan himself might be impenetrable, but the world he moves through drops its secrets at a dizzying pace. So the purple prose serves to establish that world, that Conan may cut through it swift as a dagger in the dark.

Examining these two writers together, I’ve started to up my pace in the production of short fiction. The same day I picked up my Carver anthology, I sat down and penned a sci-fi short, start to finish. I built it off a fragment that had been sitting in my Tablo collection. I was never sure if I wanted it to be a short or a novella, and so never invested the thought into it. An afternoon of Carver and I hashed out the scene and put a ribbon on it. It’s called “The Filth of Living” and it’s going to be in the next issue of Unnamed Journal, as is a Blood and Thunder story of my own devising, called “The Dying Goddess”.

I don’t know if continually absorbing influence is a good strategy for an author. But I’m going to try it.

Game of Thrones Season Two

They should be calling it Clash of Kings, as that’s the second book. But the virtue of the title Game of Thrones is that it fits the scope of the entire saga. In fact, it fits better than the official title, A Song of Ice and Fire. Thus far, the Ice and the Fire have both remained on the margins of the main plot.

Anyway, here’s the trailer. I probably won’t get a chance to watch it until HBO goes free for another weekend, so…

http://www.hbo.com/bin/hboPlayerV2u.swf?vid=1234943