Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

375. Science vs. Magic (1)

This is another set of posts which acts as a backdrop to one of the panels I am scheduled to be on at Westercon this year. In this case the panel is Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? In part it draws on a very old post, 37. Fantasy, Whatever that is.

It has been a grand ride.

Since I started reading science fiction and fantasy in the late fifties, I have seen the rise of Amber, Witch World, the Dorsai, the Lensmen, LeGuin, Zelazny, Ellison, Varley, Ballard, and hundred of others. I was there for the Tolkien revival and the revival of other fantasy writers under Ballantine.

Through the years, avid readers waged war on one another over the most trivial of notions — just like any other family. It used to be that, if you called science fiction “sci fi” (never mind SyFy) you were being disrespectful. You had to call the genre science fiction, or maybe SF.

However, if you called it SF, then you had to argue whether that stood for science fiction of speculative fiction or . . . I’ve forgotten what the lesser contenders were.

Mimeographs and postage stamps were the internet of the early sixties. Whole forests went to the pulp mills to make paper to support arguments about what was or was not science fiction, whether fantasy was worth considering, and where one ended and the other began. Then Heinlein published Glory Road and sent shock waves through the SF community by landing with one foot squarely in each camp.

I mention all this because, although my publications so far have been science fiction, I have spent more time and taken more satisfaction writing fantasy.

Things have changed — somewhat. Today, everything goes, but you still have to declare yourself. I recently dealt with a publisher who required that you shoehorn your submission into one of about forty SF/fantasy sub-categories. Let’s call this generating chaos through an excessive allegiance to order.

All of this is probably subsumed under Clarke’s Third Law. Or, look at it this way: the Creation as given in Genesis is fact, allegory, or fantasy depending on whether you are a fundamentalist, a religious liberal, or an atheist.

Put still another way, if it tastes like fantasy, it is (for you) and if it tastes like science fiction, it is (for you).

But maybe not for the rest of us.

Clarke’s third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Heinlein on technology:
I try never to get a machine sore at me. There’s no theory for that but every engineer knows it.

“The car won’t start unless you hold your mouth just right.”
folk wisdom known to all owners of elderly automobiles

So what do we mean by science and technology, and what do we mean by magic?

Does anybody care?

I think the general answer is, “No”. Most readers just want a fun ride, whether with ray guns or magic wands. You, on the other hand, did sign up for Science & Technology vs. Magic, so I’m going to assume you do care. Before we go any further, let’s try to answer the question. It may prove difficult — especially if there really isn’t any difference — but let’s try.

Science is a rigorous and careful attempt to discover the nature of the universe by observation and experimentation. Okay, that seems reasonable. I think we can be provisionally satisfied with that, and move on.

Technology is a little trickier. A computer is technology, sure. But so is a flaked stone spear point. That spear point didn’t flake itself. But what about the stick that a chimp picks up and uses to get ants out of an anthill?

Nothing is ever easy, is it? Let’s just file technology as a sub-set of science and move on, or we we’ll never get to the fun stuff.

Magic is harder to define. We’ll tackle that next Tuesday, because on Monday I have to devote a post to things that are happening with Sprit Deer, over on the Serial side of the website.

373. The Introverted Author (3)

This the last of three posts of online notes for the Westercon panel
Fake it ’til you make it: a survivor’s guide for the introverted author

Today, if you are commercially published, it is expected that you will work to sell your own book. If you have self-published, you are entirely on your own. The internet allows authors the chance to reach out to potential readers. That means we have to use the opportunity, because every other newly published author already is.

Goodreads provides author’s pages. So does Amazon. Even though Amazon now owns Goodreads, they still operate separately, and you need to be on both. Goodreads provides a website as part of the author page. I use it, but I don’t suggest it as a main website.

You need reviews in both places. That’s where a gaggle of friends comes in handy — oops, I forgot. We’re introverts. That’s why we are on social media instead of down at the corner bar.

Facebook is supposed to be the answer. It wasn’t for me. I found that I was simply repeating on Facebook what I was already saying on my website, so I let it lapse. I don’t suggest that. Facebook allows your readers to share that they have found you, much easier than a website does, but in my case, I didn’t have the time to do both.

My own situation was unique. I had forty years of experience in a lot of fields. Writing, teaching, anthropology, archaeology, history, South Asian studies, maritime history, carpentry, musical instrument making, studying ecology, growing up with the space race, farming, growing up white on the edge of the South and learning how wrong we were by watching the civil rights movement, turning atheist in a Southern Baptist household and having to deal with that. On top of that, I had a lot of unpublished and under published material at hand.

If you are just coming in from Westercon, that probably seems like exaggeration. If you have been with me since this site started, you may be getting tired of hearing about it. I began a site with twin blogs, Serial which provides serialized fiction, and

Today, if you are commercially published, it is expected that you will work to sell your own book. If you have self-published, you are entirely on your own. The internet allows authors the chance to reach out to potential readers. That means we have to use the opportunity, because every other newly published author already is.

Goodreads provides author’s pages. So does Amazon. Even though Amazon now owns Goodreads, they still operate separately, and you need to be on both. Goodreads provides a website as part of the author page. I use it, but I don’t suggest it as a main website.

You need reviews in both places. That’s where a gaggle of friends comes in handy — oops, I forgot. We’re introverts. That’s why we are on social media instead of down at the corner bar.

Facebook is supposed to be the answer. It wasn’t for me. I found that I was simply repeating on Facebook what I was already saying on my website, so I let it lapse. I don’t suggest that. Facebook allows your readers to share that they have found you, much easier than a website does, but in my case, I didn’t have the time to do both.

My own situation was unique. I had forty years of experience in a lot of fields. Writing, teaching, anthropology, archaeology, history, South Asian studies, maritime history, carpentry, musical instrument making, studying ecology, growing up with the space race, farming, growing up white on the edge of the south and learning how wrong we were by watching the civil rights movement, turning atheist in a Southern Baptist household and having to deal with that. On top of that, I had a lot of unpublished and under published material.

If you are coming in from Westercon, that probably seems like exaggeration. If you have been with me since this site started, you may be getting tired of hearing about it. I began a site with twin blogs, Serial which provides serialized fiction, and A Writing Life which consists of mini-essays. It’s a blog site that is more like a magazine and it takes as much time as it sounds like it would.

If you are young, you certainly don’t have the option of doing what I’ve done, but you have other options in social media that I probably don’t even know exist.

Let’s circle back now to writers who aren’t yet published; who may not even have finished their first novel; who may not even have started their first novel. You can still blog about your process.

When I was just learning about blogging I came across the book How to Blog a Book by Nina Amir. I recommend it, although it didn’t work for me. My work habits don’t fit the approach, but if you are the kind of person who makes chapter by chapter outlines before you begin to write, check it out.

Making a blog is free and fairly easy on WordPress. Or do the equivalent on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever comes out next. Then take this advice from an old curmudgeon who would never take the advice himself. Get all the support you get off the internet and hug it close. Thank the people who “like” you, and “like” their work in turn, if you find it worthwhile. If it helps you, go back to your favorite happy comments when you’re feeling low.

At very least, these people are offering a safe place to speak in “public”. It’s probably the only safe place on the internet. Don’t abuse it with the criticism. And don’t think that being liked, or “liked” by your fellow wannabes means much to the larger world.

Read and compare your best work with the best in the world. Don’t expect to be that good. Read Shakespeare for humility, and to steal his cadences. You already know his words; he was the first person to use half the words in the dictionary.

As an introvert, you should already know that Mama’s praise, and disdain from that bully down the street, both mean nothing.

Compare your work to the best and don’t expect to get to where they are right away. Or ever, if you are reading the masters. Compare your work to those who are successful in your field in order to set reasonable goals. Compare your work to published mediocrities and join the ranks of the thousands of writers who have said, “Hell, I could write better than that.” Then go out and prove it. But don’t think you’re there yet. There are a million mediocrities who also write better than that guy. They just aren’t married to the editor.

You don’t let the harsh words of those who don’t like you hold you back? Good. Now take the harder step, and don’t let the unearned praise of your friends make you complacent.

The last word, which is also the first word, on the subject of how to “Fake it till you make it,” is — Get a good day job. 

Do something you like, something you wouldn’t mind spending a lifetime at. You may never sell; even more likely, you probably will never make a living at what you write.

Don’t stop writing, but don’t bet your future on success.

Go to a large used book store, look at the science fiction section, and figure out how many books were written by people who only saw a few of their works published. Some of these books are classics. Some are mediocre. All of them were written by people who were not making a living at writing.

The old saw is, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” Turn that around. “Writing is what happens while you are living a good life.”

Want to be a veterinarian? Do it. Want to be a college professor? Do it. Want to be an organic farmer? Do it. Want to be a librarian? Do it.

Want to teach middle school science? Do it.

Keep writing on the side, and let success take care of itself.

372. The Introverted Author (2)

This is the second of three posts of online notes for the Westercon panel
Fake it ’til you make it: a survivor’s guide for the introverted author

Okay, you’re introverted. Welcome to the  club. Why else would we sit at home in front of a computer and talk to people who aren’t there.

There are actually three separate questions facing the Introverted Author — or the other kind, if there are any. How can you learn to write? How can you get published? And how can you get that published work into the hands of the right readers? Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Here is an entire lecture, given by Sinclair Lewis, supposedly when he was drunk.

“You stupid-looking sons of bitches wanna write? Well, gwan home and write!”

That wasn’t very useful, was it?

Some people have a natural talent for writing. They just write, with some degree of ease; everyone knows it, although it isn’t politically correct to say so. I have to confess to being one of those people.

I also have to say that, while it makes life pleasant to have that natural capacity, it doesn’t make writing well any easier. And it doesn’t make selling any easier. A would-be writer who has to learn to write by diligent effort, but has something to say that the public wants to hear, or who has a voice like the voice of his audience, will probably sell more and sooner.

Is there any help out there for young writers? Actually, there’s a ton. Possibly too much. There are classes and workshops galore. You can even get a college degree in writing. I suppose you could get a degree in writing, then turn around and teach writing, without ever having had a commercial publication. That seems to be the way it is done these days. It isn’t for me, but it might be for you. I seem to detect a sameness int the products of this system, but that may be prejudice.

It is certain that the writers of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, didn’t learn to write in classes or at conferences, but they did learn.

There is a certain amount of sameness in genre fiction anyway — virtually by definition. You can learn the requirements of the genre in class, or by careful reading of what has been recently published in your field. It doesn’t matter whether it is science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, or so-called literary fiction — which is just a genre with a necktie and a superior attitude.

Whatever comes first, classes and conferences or just extensive reading in your chosen field, what comes next is putting your butt in the chair and writing.

Writing is the easy part. Getting published is harder. I wish I had some good advice to give you about that. In fact, I wish I had some good advice to give myself.

Stick with it. Persevere. Don’t give up. Never say die.

Platitudes, just platitudes.

You can say it in reverse. If you don’t keep trying, you can’t succeed. That’s true, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

I read this advice in a fishing book — “You won’t catch a fish if you don’t keep your lure in the water.” Now that sounds like a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one. But, really, what does it mean. If you keep the wrong lure, in the wrong pond, at the wrong time of day, you’re going to go home hungry.

Now there’s a metaphor.

Here’s my own story, in brief. I started writing full time in 1975. My first book, Jandrax, came out from Del Rey in 1978. My second book came out from Pocket Books in 1981. That book sold again in German translation in 1983.

My next publication came out this year.

That makes me the poster child for perseverance, but is anyone else willing to undergo a thirty-four year dry spell? I didn’t think so.

There are a thousand books which will tell you how to write your novel, and how to get it published. Read them if you want. I’ve certainly read my share, and most of them have at least some useful things to say. Then ask yourself, “How many successful novels has the author written?” And draw your own conclusions.

I know that’s all depressing, but I’m not here to lie to you.

When I was a young writer, there were only two paths to publication. You would find an agent if you could, or you would have to go it alone. Now the number of publishers willing to look at unagented submissions has shrunk, and at the same time it seems harder than ever to get an agent.

Today, self-publication forms a third path. I cay much about it, as I haven’t yet tried it myself. I plan to listen this weekend to those who have, and form some conclusions.

So let’s assume that you are recently published. If you have a commercial publisher, he may do something to help sell your book, but not much if you are new. That is both a disaster and an opportunity — which sounds like something out of a self-help book. Okay, let’s admit that, and take a look.

Back in the seventies and eighties, success for a book, once it was published, was in the lap of the Gods. Not the lap of the publisher because they were already working on the next book in the pipeline. Not the lap of the author, because there was absolutely nothing he could do to help himself. continued tomorrow

371. The Introverted Author (1)

These are the online notes for the Westercon panel
Fake it ’til you make it: a survivor’s guide for the introverted author

Here is a true tale for you, set once upon a time when the world was young. You can take some comfort in it when you are feeling shy.

I had just sold my second novel to David Hartwell, and had him lined up to buy my third. He invited me to a get-together with other young authors at Charles Brown’s house in the Oakland Hills. Charles Brown was then the editor of Locus.

I date this by the fact that A Fond Farewell to Dying was the only book Hartwell bought from me. The other deal fell through. No fault, no foul, no complaints; he gave it a fair hearing but it wasn’t ready. That’s a different story for a different time.

I also date that night by the fact that Heinlein had just delivered his first new manuscript in years. Everybody was speculating about it at the party. Hartwell’s assistant, who had read it, wouldn’t comment. It was Number of the Beast.

The year must have been 1979.

That night, I think, or perhaps at one of the Westercons I attended shortly after, I met Marta Randal and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I went home immediately afterward and read Islands and Hotel Transylvania. I suspect that I will spend the weeks after this Westercon similarly playing catch-up.

I might have met several other authors who were unknown then and are famous now — memory does not record all the faces I saw that night.

I remember Charles Brown’s house, old, wooden, perched on the edge of a winding hill road. He had good bookcases and old bookcases and rickety bookcases and stacks of books and spills of books; more books than I had seen outside of a library. The main room was full too —  of writers, most of them new to the business.

Now, here’s the survival guide for the introverted author part.

The room had four corners. Every corner had a young author in it. All the rest of us were milling around trying to find a corner, but there weren’t any more. Every one of us was trying to look like we thought we belonged.

No one was succeeding.

Mind you, we did belong. We had been invited. We were all authors who had made it to at least the bottom rung of the ladder, but nobody seemed to feel it yet.

There were a few more experienced writers, known names who had won awards. They were working the room like a stand-up at Vegas. I don’t think they were showing off. I think they were trying to put us at ease.

I appreciated the effort, but it didn’t work. Introverted is introverted, and a lot of writers seem to suffer from the malady.

A year or two later, I gave a talk at Westercon on “How to Build a Culture.” It went smoothly and I enjoyed it immensely. The difference was confidence, and it wasn’t the year or two that gave it to me. It was the setting. I was on stage, with a microphone, behind a table and they were out there. They means you.

I could speak in front of a thousand of people with no hesitation, but I get tongue-tied in an elevator. I have a lot of non-writer friends, and most of them are of the opposite persuasion. They excel at small talk, at chatting, at putting a new acquaintance at ease. I envy them that skill, but if you put them in front of a large audience, they would freeze up.

Of course, one could try the old chestnut about imagining the audience naked. I’ve never thought that was a good idea. If the audience is full of beautiful people of the gender that interests you, you might get distracted. If they are significantly the opposite, they might scare you.

It seems better to me to imagine that the audience likes you, and wants to hear what you have to say. Whether it’s true or not, that mind-set might make for a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’m sure that there are people who can talk to one person, then turn around and talk to a thousand, and never miss a beat. We can ignore them. They won’t be found in a room where the panel discussion is “Fake it till you make it”.

This discussion continues next Monday and Tuesday.

370. Fantasy World Building (3)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts Monday, Tuesday, and today).

The question, as we ended yesterday, was language, and who bothers to create them.

I did, in a manner of speaking. The Menhir stories grew from a single image, and I had no idea for years where they were going. Things got invented, and the world of the Menhir grew by accretion. I invented a style of fighting, which required invention of a sword/lance, which required invention of a name, and lancette entered my story’s vocabulary. A thousand place names and personal names got invented. Gradually, the world grew a religious background which became the underpinning for what passes for magic on that world. This morphed into an entire system for the handling of life and death, and words like ai, enreithment, and abahara entered the vocabulary of the story. I invented a kind of peasant dwelling and now we had hartwa. My people started out with oxen and horses but that wasn’t satisfactory, so they were soon riding kakais and using tichan to pull their wagons.

Words begat words, morphographically. Since ai means power and dzi– means man of, then a dziai is a man of power, and the men of the plains whose entire lives revolve around their mounts are, of course, the dzikakai.

As if that weren’t enough, my people started quoting words and phrases from the language of a nearby kingdom — just like the English quote the French, n’est-ce pas. I eventually made myself a glossary, but don’t take that as a requirement. I’ve been living on the world of the Menhir, part time at least, for four decades, but even I get confused sometimes.

Archaism

I’ve told this story before, but I can’t help repeating it. The scene, as I recall, was Westercon 33, Los Angeles, in 1980. A panel of writers and editors was discussing fantasy, and things had gotten out of hand. After a grueling discussion of what some magical breed of horses in Lord of the Rings ate, they had moved on to the subject of archaic language.

Somebody said it was okay, but don’t overdo it. Somebody said archaisms should be used sparingly, like spice in food. That went back and forth for several minutes until some wag in the audience stood up and asked, “Are you saying we can have archaic, and eat it too?”

I wish I had thought of that.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism is easy to achieve. For archaism in fantasy, you could almost write a formula:

HORSES + SWORDS + MAGIC = FANTASY

Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time-before-known-time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time.

Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2017s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite juvenile series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

It would be logical to assume that you could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly white teeth from dastardly villains — or maybe from dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Tempe, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.

369. Fantasy World Building (2)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts today, yesterday, and tomorrow).

Continuing the concept of magic . . .

Christianity, in earlier centuries, saw witches as wielders of power which they obtained by pacts with Satan. Harmful as they were, witches had no power of their own. In many dark fantasies, the searcher after power obtains his heart’s desire from some greater being who is, in essence, a Satanic stand-in. Such Faustian bargains never end well.

Well, almost never. Martin does turn the tables on Satan in Robert Bloch’s That Hell-Bound Train.

Magic, in fantasy writing, often goes unexplained. The talisman in The Monkey’s Paw is understood by the reader without elaboration, just as a reader of westerns doesn’t need an explanation of how a six-gun works.

It is quite usual for a fantasy hero to have inborn power. Harry Potter was a wizard born of wizards. Ged is an unknown until his power is discovered by a mage. Corwin is a son of Amber.

It is equally usual to concentrate on the education of a wizard, or mage, or dziai. Ged went to Roke, Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, and my Tidac took two books to learn how to use his power because he had no mentor. His father never learned, and it destroyed him.

Can we have fantasy without magic? Probably not. Pavane is an alternate universe science fiction or an alternate history novel, but its tone makes it read like fantasy, except for the absence of magic. What seems to be magic in one chapter, may just be a dying dream; it isn’t made clear to the reader. For me, this places Pavane on the borderline between genres.

On the other hand, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories are all about magic, but their system of magic is so comprehensively worked out that they read like science fiction.

I know that my Menhir story, in its infancy, before I really knew what it was going to be about, read like a quasi-medieval world. Slowly I came to grips with how the powers of every soul are affixed to menhirs at death, making menhirs into gestalt beings which become repositories of power that can be tapped, at peril, by men of power. Only then did magic come into the world of the menhir. And only then did it begin to read as fantasy.

Language

“Up sword,” sayeth Sir Gallant, “lest I cleave thee where thou standest.”

Yeah, that’s pretty bad, and it has been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of fake-ancient language used in fantasy, except as a joke.

Language in fantasy is both a necessary tool, and a dangerous one. You can’t just throw in some thees and thous and -ests, but you also can’t speak in modern, colloquial English. Simple formality is the easiest way out. Even Zelazny, for all his smart-ass-with-a-sword characters, wrote with intelligence and a great deal of formality. If you want your characters to speak slang, you have to invent slang appropriate to their world, and that takes some effort.

Remember, whatever language your characters speak, even if you are setting your fantasy in early England, no one on Earth speaks that language today. In my fantasy world of the Menhir there are three languages in play, and a mid-sea island has a bastard language drawn from all three. It doesn’t matter. The book gets translated into English, whatever language the characters are speaking.

Whatever your genre, you are likely to have characters from different levels of society. Whether you are writing about nomads from the desert encountering the Pasha of Nevermore, or a Bostonian talking to a southern slave in 1845, you need to find a way to make your characters sound different from modern America, and from each other, but still be comprehensible. And it needs to sound natural. ‘Taint easy.

Languages – note the difference – are also dangerous, but at least you don’t have to invent one if you don’t want to. Tolkien did, to a degree far in excess of the needs of his stories. Almost no one else ever does. language continues tomorrow

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368. Fantasy World Building (1)

    Here we have an oddity. I am adding this paragraph after the original post date, but before Westercon. The title of this panel was changed from Fantasy World Building to Of Wizards, Dragons and Klingons: Fantasy and Sci-Fi World Buiiding. That is a bit ambitious; it pretty much includes everything writers do. I will leave these posts as they were, covering only fantasy worlds, but if you look at the rest of the panels on my Westercon page, you will find enough to justify the omnibus title.

I love fantasy, as long as you understand that I don’t include horror. Although all my publications so far have been science fiction, I have actually spent more time writing fantasy. You’ll see it, eventually.
     The first thing I wrote seriously, three years before I sat down to become a writer, was the first chapter of what became a three book fantasy series, Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin.
     Since I began this blog, snippets of fantasy fiction and posts about the writing of fantasy have appeared here and there. Long term followers may recognize the following from posts 240 -243.

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone and magic (today’s post), as well as language and the concept of the archaic (tomorrow).

Tone

The tone of the prolog to my novel Valley of the Menhir is intense and serious, but it can afford to be. It only lasts eight ms pages; if it were prolonged, such seriousness would quickly become pretentious. Books, like the characters in them, need to breathe. This is true whatever the genre.

J. R. R Tolkien set the tone for fantasy, and not necessarily in a positive way. The feel of Lord of the Rings is a combination of pretension and childishness, a tone that came from the uneasy mixing of hobbits with humans and elves. I liked LOTR well enough to read it twice, decades apart, but I don’t think I could make it through again. To be fair, the hobbits were the best thing in the books. When I tried to read the Silmarillion, the hobbits weren’t there to lighten the mood, so I finally bogged down and quit.

Tone at its best is found in A Wizard of Earthsea, which is, for my taste, and without equivocation, the best fantasy novel of them all. The overriding factor in the tone of Earthsea is humility. Ged is the son of peasants (or Earthsea’s equivalent) and he never loses touch with his humble beginnings. True, his arrogance leads to tragedy, but the bulk of the book is the story of Ged regaining the humility which is his natural state.

The language of the book is simple, matching the tone of the story. The image of a man in a tiny boat, pursuing his nemesis alone across Earthsea, has an almost Ghandiesque simplicity about it — if we remember that Ghandi had the simplicity and arrogance to bring down the British empire.

Tone can take many shades in fantasy, and still work. Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser stories on one hand and Keith Robert’s Pavane on the other are worlds apart in every way, but each strikes the tone necessary for its story. And yes, I know Pavane is an alternate worlds novel, but it reads like fantasy.

Roger Zelazny’s tone has one foot in science fiction and the other in fantasy. It doesn’t matter what he writes, his tone remains the same, and it works everywhere. Lord of Light is certainly science fiction and Creatures of Light and Darkness is certainly fantasy. Amber, in all its volumes, transcends categorization, but all these works belong in the genre called everything-Zelazny-wrote. I’ve read all his work repeatedly, and will continue to do so, because I get lost in the sound of his voice. And that is what tone is, after all.

Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
                Clarke’s third law.

The universe is full of forces; some of those forces are personalities.
                reference lost

I believe that the second quotation above is from a piece by James Blish, which I read many years ago and no longer have available to me. If anyone recognizes the source, let me know. In that same piece, as I recall, he spoke of Black Easter as an experiment in which he treated the Book of Revelation as simple fact. Roger Zelazny made a career out of treating non-Western religions as if they were simple fact.

Like stardrives, magic can be highly structured or haphazardly thrown in when the story needs it. Both styles work, depending on the skill of the author. The most organized magic I recall is Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. For disorganization, see any new author.

A primary, underlying question in any presentation of a fantasy world is, “Where does the magic come from?” Is it a dispersed, readily available natural resource like The Force in Star Wars? Does it reside within its wielder, as a natural consequence of his being? Or is it owned by other powerful beings, who must be supplicated or bargained with to obtain a portion of their power? This choice has a huge effect on how dark the story is likely to become. we continue magic tomorrow

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