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Posts tagged “genre fiction

ConFusion

I’m departing this afternoon for Detroit, Michigan to participate in the ConFusion science fiction convention! I’m moderating the “Blurring the Lines” panel on genre Sunday at 10 and then giving a reading at 11.

Hope to see you there!

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A new voice in the field of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy fiction, New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His most recent story, “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” was published in Dark Oak Press’ Capes and Clockwork II, edited by Alan Lewis. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon lives with his guardian and protector, Battle-cat Princess Kaleidoscope, in his home town of New Orleans, Louisiana. Find out more about Brandon’s work at http://www.brandonblackonline.com.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.
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Sexualization and the charge thereof

I had the pleasure of reading through an early draft of a friend’s story that he’s preparing as a submission to an anthology I’m editing. He introduced a trope that is usually associated with fan service but did so in a way that “took the high road” and did not sexualize a very often sexualized trope. And I’m cool with that.

I think it’s the word “sexualize” that I’m not cool with.

I had been posting some fantasy pictures to my D&D party’s online facebook group until two of the members objected. To make a long story short, I think (they weren’t very clear about their objections and I was too annoyed to ask for specifics) they objected to the female characters in the depictions being sexually attractive. The term “sexualized women” was mentioned.

I don’t get this term. It implies that something has been done to the women, or the pictures, or both, that wasn’t inherent to either the women or the pictures beforehand. The pictures I shared were of two models, both women who had arranged for someone to take pictures of them in cosplay, all on their own. These were not women who had been hired to wear skimpy costumes for the sake of pleasing men. These were women who chose to portray themselves in fantasy costumes for their own pleasure and that of those they shared their pictures with. And I, for one, don’t see that as a crime, and certainly not a sin.

I don’t see a sin with males enjoying pictures of attractive females or heroes getting it on with sexy princesses and that sort of thing in stories. Rather than remove descriptions and situations of women in sexual roles in fiction, I’d like to just adjust the balance and make sure that there’s more beefcake to balance the cheesecake. I’d like to make sure there’s as many heroines getting it on with sexy princes they’ve saved as heroes with alien princesses. The old Frank Frazetta paintings had as much half-naked Conan-type barbarian men as half-naked fantasy women, you know? That’s what I think would be fair. Fantasy is called fantasy for a reason.

Usually when I say that, someone lifts their nose and gets all snooty and says something to the effect of “fantasy doesn’t need naked women to be successful.” I agree. But I like naked women and I don’t have a problem saying so. What’s wrong with finding beauty in the human form? What’s wrong with enjoying sex? Fantasy is entertainment and I’d rather have more entertainment than less.

So — anyway — while I won’t ask the author of the story in question to change his work (I’m really biting my tongue not to mention specifics but I don’t want to give away spoilers), it’s his choice and I respect that. Besides, he is a really good writer and there are other aspects to fantasy writing than naked sweaty people.

I’ll just be sure to add more naked sweaty people to my own work, so prudes of the world be warned.

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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.

Extensions

As most if not all of you know by now, New Orleans regrettably lost its bid to throw WorldCon 2018. As such, there is no pressing need to rush out the next set of Black Tome Books and since several authors have contacted me privately request extensions, I’ve decided to formally push back the deadlines for both Paris By Gaslight and The Other World to Sunday, October 2nd.

We will be doing another By Gaslight book after Paris By Gaslight with submissions starting perhaps in December and running through March perhaps. We’ll also be doing a non-steampunk anthology next year as well; currently the plan is heroic fantasy.

Cheers,

Brandon

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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.

 

All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.

The Nature of Good and Evil in Dungeons and Dragons (and what to do about it)

This is from 5th Edition D&Ds Basic DM Rules: “Humanoids are the main peoples of the D&D world, both civilized and savage, including humans and a tremendous variety of other species. They have language and culture, few if any innate magical abilities (though most humanoids can learn spellcasting), and a bipedal form. The most common humanoid races are the ones most suitable as player characters: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Almost as numerous but far more savage and brutal, and almost uniformly evil, are the races of goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and kobolds.”
I’ve been unhappy about racism in D&D for some time. It didn’t take me long to see the connections between how humans treat orcs in D&D and how the British treated the Scots, the Irish, pretty much everyone else on the planet. ‘They’re evil. They’re inferior. It’s okay for us to conquer them.’ In D&D, you can kick the door in on someone else’s home, kill them and take their stuff and it’s okay because ‘they’re evil.’ That’s just nuts.
So — what do I do about it? I had planned a D&D world that was much more cosmopolitan, where different races got along, at least in some locales and when they didn’t, it would be absolutely clear that it was because of simple racism. I never thought I’d like a racist character but I’ve got an elf mage I’m working on who’s totally racist and yet, works for me as a character. He’s got the whole snooty elf superiority complex thing going on and he’s a wandering mercenary. I like it because it explains what such a character is actually doing. I mean, after all, if elven society is so much better than any other society on the planet, why isn’t he back there instead of wandering the world? The answer is: he only considers his actions as a mercenary acceptable because he ISN’T visiting death and destruction upon fellow elves for money. Killing humans, or orcs, or dwarves, or trolls, well, that doesn’t count. As long as he isn’t killing elves, he’s free to wander the land, blasting people with magick and getting paid to do it.
Drow, in particular, or rather their depiction, pisses me off too. The only dark-skinned race in D&D to get any depth of culture or politics or religion and they’re evil. They’re a subterranean race but they are dark-skinned — because they’re evil. Logic would make them albinos as they are in Warhammer but evil trumps reason in D&D — they have to be marked with dark skin like black people in Mormonism.
5th edition FINALLY made playing Drow a standard PC option. I remember when 5th edition first came out and I was so excited to see that and I looked forward to playing a good Drow character and then when I got to +1 Gaming, Jeremy Henson (and I’m not picking on him) was trying to persuade people to play anything BUT drow because drow are traditionally evil — even though a few good individuals are known to exist. I didn’t listen and played a good drow anyway. I’ve spent too many years playing a black human in D&D from Fabled Offmapia because neither commercially created fantasy worlds nor DM homebrewed worlds had an African continent equivalent. Dark-skinned people have a right to play heroes that remind them of themselves too.
Anyway — my doubt. I was cool with just making a cosmopolitan world where different races can get along or not as they see fit and it isn’t because one side is automatically good and the other automatically evil, except I read this article where someone was complaining about the “Klingonization” of orcs. He was referring to orcs in World of Warcraft being treated as people and not monsters and they’re not being ‘evil’ just a barbarian culture that’s been in opposition with humans and dwarves and elves for so long that it’s become habitual. In other words, exactly the kind of thing I was planning on. Except it reminded me of how I feel about demons.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sequel series, Angel, watered demons down into aliens. They weren’t manifestations of supernatural evil. They weren’t all inherently evil. Many, if not most of them, were just people who wanted to live their lives and not be noticed. Yes, there were some who had great power and abused that power for their own desires but there’s people like that too. I hated that view of demons, not because of it’s symbolic portrayal of diversity but because you took a fearsome category of monster and turned it into a homeless guy who just wanted to be left alone. And I can see how some people would feel the same way about orcs.
You could say the whole utility of orcs in a game like D&D is that they’re supposed to be irredeemable and they are a continual menace, like they are in Warhammer 40K and thus there can be no peace with them and thus “There can only be war.” And that’s entertaining and this is supposed to be entertainment so it’s okay. “They’re supposed to be monsters; let’s treat them like monsters.”
So I’m not really sure now. I like the cosmopolitan world but fantasy is ultimately about — well — fantasy — sex and violence — killing the bad guy, getting the girl, tossing gold coins and gems into the air and partying well into the night to celebrate your victory. What do we lose if we make fantasy mirror the real world and every enemy is only an enemy because they look different from us or because of their deep-seated psychological problems stemming from childhood?
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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.

The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part II

The second part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy is that good writing in any particular genre should seek to do that which that genre does particularly if not uniquely well. Fantasy shouldn’t try to be science fiction. We don’t require a scientific explanation for Pern’s dragons after all. A horror story set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a western, although it could be. Where it lands on that spectrum depends on the tropes used and the dominant mood generated by the piece and the author should be seeking to control where it lands on that spectrum through a deliberate selection and use of those tropes and dominant mood.

Fantasy is largely about a nostalgic view of a mythic past based on existent real world historical civilizations. We tend to see much of fantasy set in pseudo-medieval worlds with parallels to Western Europe, knights, sword-fighting, Vikings, castles and so forth. It would be perfectly possible to create a fantasy world eschewing all of these but many people may complain it doesn’t feel like fantasy. We could have a fantasy world entirely bereft of Humanity, but containing magick, fantastic beasts, medieval technology, etc. But if the two sides’ contending combatants fighting with swords are eight-foot tall talking cockroaches, the audience may not find it to their liking.

You can make the argument that that should be irrelevant to a definition of genre, that if the dominant tropes and emotions hold true, then it should be classed in that genre. My take on these matters, however, is practical. This discussion of literary theory is being pursued to develop a rubric for the creation of professionally publishable works of fiction and what the readership wants always has a place to play in such matters. Much of fantasy avoids Tolkienesque dwarves, orcs, elves and halflings at all, even as other works embrace them. The elements that are conventional are used as a counterbalance to the ones that aren’t so the reader doesn’t feel helplessly dropped into a universe where they don’t know any of the rules at all. For example, we don’t excuse incoherent characterization of human beings in fantasy merely because the rules of the universe permit dragons or magick. Characters have to have understandable, reasonable motivations or we aren’t satisfied.

What I’m struggling to say is that that nostalgic view, that mythic past, is important to fantasy. And since we can change up some tropes, we can have, as we have seen in recent years, a move to explore cultures other than Western Europe in our fantasy literature. More and more we are seeing worlds built on a mythic past set in Asia, Africa, Australia and Central and South America and that’s all to the good. And it doesn’t mean you can’t introduce something new or different. We can have eight-foot tall insectile warriors as part of the fictive background, as Burroughs did on Mars, but it just means we also need to introduce more conventional characters as well or to take our time easing the reader into the new society to avoid them feeling overwhelmed. Although describing Burroughs’ other Martians as more conventional may be deceptive, his voluptuous Martian princesses are egg-laying after all.

A final argument I would make regards the difference between fiction and film. So many of my fellow emerging writers are terrified adherents to the theory of “show not tell.” But fiction isn’t film. Film tells things poorly, even crudely. Voice-overs, opening scrolling text and lengthy conversations in which people relate facts they should all already know are ugly ways of conveying information. But authors of fiction shouldn’t be so terrified of telling a story that they can’t give the reader key and vital information in a sentence or two, or even a short paragraph. It is called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” after all. There are things we want to know about the author’s universe, things that might not be easily worked into a conversation between two people who have lived in that universe for their entire lives and take those things for granted. A paragraph on the operations of a key technology, such as how FTL functions in your universe or how your magick works, is no sin. Cruder, more ham-fisted techniques can be used, such as the youthful ignorant character who needs everything explained to him but your reader may find it stretching credulity when your character, even if he’s young, has been alive in a world where priests heal wounds and broken bones by touch or the city’s politics are dominated by its ruling class of wizards, and yet he knows nothing of magick as an excuse for the reader to be told these facts as they are told to him for the first time. The emotional response of “how dumb is this guy” or “has he lived entirely under a rock not to know that much” may be what you elicit from your reader.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part I

There are some people with the belief that a story is a story is a story and that what makes a good story in one genre applies equally well to all types of fiction. Those people are wrong.

Genres are defined, largely, by the contents of their tropes. Fantasy stories have magick and fantastic creatures, and typically fantastic settings when we aren’t talking about urban fantasy or paranormal fiction which seek to depict the fantastic lurking in the shadowy corners of the “real world.” Science fiction stories centre on advanced technology and science, giving us tales of adventure on far-flung planets, or aboard distant starships or space stations. The degree to which a genre story is good depends on how well the author has made use of that genre’s tropes to create an interesting, compelling tale.

Now some will find that a shallow definition of genre. But the western genre best demonstrates this concept, the fragility of its foundation on tropes. A western is a story set in the Western United States, in the 19th century, typically revolving around characters, objects and tropes you would expect to find there, cowboys, Native Americans, firearms, prostitutes, trains, horses, outlaws, plots focused on revenge, a tendency to resolve conflicts through showdowns, etc. You can easily remove any one of these elements and still have a western but remove too many of these tropes and your story is no longer a western.

You can have a Sherlock Holmes story set in Victorian times, involving firearms with a plot based on revenge and it be in no way a western. But should a murderous outlaw flee Oklahoma for China and a relentless ex-lawman bent on avenging his fallen family pursue him there, we still have a western.

I had an acquaintance once whom I used to tease by saying that horror wasn’t a genre; it’s a mood. It’s an emotion. If the primary cumulative emotional effect of the film is to generate fear, or more accurately trepidation, in the viewer, then it’s a horror film. You can have a horror film without any supernatural elements whatsoever. There doesn’t need to be a demon or a doorway to hell for you to be telling a horror tale. Alien is clearly a science fiction film. There are astronauts, suspended animation, alien life forms, starships, advanced technology of all kinds, an overarching corporation dominating Humanity, etc., etc., etc. But we think of Alien primarily as a horror film.

That overlap of tropes is important, especially in the Alien series. While I would define Alien as a quintessential horror film as well as being a film of science fiction, I would define it’s sequel, Aliens, as being more an SF film than a horror film. There’s still the isolation of the characters, the danger presented by the alien lifeforms, and the struggle for survival, but the primarily military cast and their ability to defend themselves to some degree with force gives the film more of a “bug hunt” film than a “lone monster is picking us off one by one film.”

And so we see that genre is defined equally by tropes and by emotion. Each genre has a dominant feel to it, a dominant emotion or emotions conveyed by the bulk of its works. Horror is about fear. Fantasy is about wonder and a nostalgia for an imagined past. Science fiction is about exploring the possibilities of the future as expressed through science and technology. Wonder is a key emotion to much of sf as well but we can have a high-tech dystopia where wonder is absent and still have a work of science fiction. Westerns aren’t just about the Old West; they’re about expressing those emotions we tie to our cumulative cultural understanding of this now mythic setting. A love story with a purely interpersonal conflict between two lovers set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a Western. Such a love story, moved to a starship, isn’t science fiction.

Let me take the time to simply say “backdrops don’t count.” If genre elements are visible in a piece but they have no relevance to the story or the plot, they don’t count. If the story is about Bob’s inability to trust again impeding his new relationship with Joan, then it’s a love story; it’s romance, and it doesn’t matter if it takes place on a space station. That’s not good science fiction. Now there are some allowances to be made for individual chapters and episodes but if in a short story, the whole story could be moved to a new setting and nothing serious would have changed in the plot or characters, that’s bad writing. Backdrops don’t count.

So this is the first part of my argument, the first part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy — that good writing in any particular genre depends upon using several of its dominant tropes to achieve one or more of that genre’s dominant emotions in a story where the plot depends upon those tropes. The film Brazil is a terrifying look at the future, a retro-style bureaucratic dystopia, and yet, it is a science fiction film, not a horror film. Technology and our focus on the future is what its fear is built upon and so we class it as sf.

The television series Angel, despite having a main character who is a vampire and a host of other horror tropes, such as demons and magick, is more of an urban fantasy than a horror series. Demons, for example, in the series, are much more like aliens than implacable forces of evil. Joss Whedon uses the trope of demons as a cypher for those individuals who don’t fit into society. They look strange to our eyes. They have strange manners and customs, but ultimately, Angel portrays rank-and-file demons just as people trying to get along like the rest of us, with no greater propensity for evil than any human. They may have strange powers but they aren’t defined by them. As people, they have goals and lives and many of them simply wish to be left alone. This isn’t a horror series, it’s an urban fantasy that uses a lot of modified horror tropes.

I have a friend who postulates a theory that technologies need not be detailed in stories of science fiction. His theory is that we don’t go on about the details of cellphones or laptops or cars; we simply use them. We don’t say, “And now, I’ll get to the docks using my mechanised horseless carriage which uses tiny detonations of atomised incendiary fluid to drive pistons whose motion is transferred via gears to the wheels.” Although, such a statement might actually be fitting for a steampunk story. No. In the modern setting, the user and the reader are both acquainted with the technology in question and so there is no need for such detail.

I disagree with this theory because science fiction is all about new technologies and developments of science and these are technologies we as readers and viewers aren’t intimate with. We need the author to go on about his fictional technologies in detail because we need to know the rules of his universe for the story to make sense. We also need that detail because that’s a large part of what the audience is here for — to read about mile-long starships being flung by fusion power through hyperspace from world to world. While the character may be jaded and uninterested in the details of his craft’s propulsion, we should feel quite cheated as readers if all we ever get of the starship’s technology from the author is “and Bob went to Proxima Centauri.”

It’s necessary to develop these world-building technological details in science fiction, at least a little, in order to prepare the way for their use as plot elements. Space Battleship Yamato has a scene I remember about their space warping technology. Space Battleship Yamato, known in the States as Star Blazers, had two different FTL systems, one, the wave motion engine, an FTL drive that allowed the ship to “fly” through space at superluminal speeds, and space warping, where large distances were traversed instantaneously. In one scene, the ship and crew get into trouble and Wildstar (known as Kodai in Space Battleship Yamato) asks, “Why don’t we space warp?” I remember this scene particularly because I had asked the question out loud word for word a few seconds before Wildstar did. Sandor, the ship’s science officer, responds “Think you’re a cowboy, Wildstar?” He then proceeds to explain that space warping requires the synchronization of the ship with certain ambient waves traversing space (be they gravitic or tachyon in nature, I don’t recall) and that this is a delicate matter requiring precise calculation and it can’t be done in a hurried rush. Thus we get useful world-building which reinforces the general mood that we are dealing with realistic-sounding technologies in a realistic future. (“Realistic” as a word has limited utility when talking about Space Battleship Yamato. It is a series about a space-going WWII battleship after all.) We also get the plot utility of an explanation of why this plot element that can be used to help explain how our heroes are going to cover 180,000 light years of distance in just one Earth year can’t be used to get them out of every fight. And that’s incredibly important.

The point I’m raising is that we can remove one or more of the key tropes of science fiction from any particular sf story but if we remove too many of them or we fail to include one of its dominant emotions, wonder/hope for the future, fear/trepidation of what may occur in the future, we no longer have good sf, but something other. Remove too much technical detail and we get science fantasy rather than science fiction. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if you’re trying to write science fiction. If you’re trying to write fantasy, then you should write fantasy. Scientific or even “realistic” definitions of magick usually fall flat on their face. We need to know the rules that magick generally follows but Lucas’ attempt to explain the Force with midichlorians was contrived, unnecessary and silly. Again, there is no list of mandatory tropes and explanations we need for any particular genre, just enough presence of its dominant tropes being utilized to generate one or more of its dominant moods. And Star Wars is far more about action and adventure than it is about serious science or technological detail.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black