Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Rise of African Speculative Fiction – in conversation with Geoff Ryman and Tade Thompson

A while back I let on that I'm one of the South African spokespeeps for the newly unveiled African Speculative Fiction Society. I'm going to kick off here and say that it's about high time that we got the ball rolling here in Africa. We have a vast oral tradition, not to mention a melting pot of cultures that are all uniquely African, and for too long we've been languishing under the misconception that African SFF fiction is somehow subpar. Point is it's not. When I edited Short Story Day Africa's Terra Incognita anthology, I was blown away by the beautiful wordsmiths and their stories I encountered.

Those of you who've been following my doings over the past few years will see how I've been fighting for the recognition of African SFF fiction here in my corner for what feels like forever. And let me tell you it's absolutely awesome to have others with whom I can now connect.

So, when Geoff Ryman roped me into the ASFS to help with the establishment of Africa's own speculative fiction awards, the Nommos, I jumped at the opportunity. Here's something I'm really passionate about, and I'm really happy to have my fellow ASFS folks over today (Geoff Ryman and Tade Thompson) to chat about this endeavour.

Nerine Dorman: I was a bit taken aback to be asked to get involved with the ASFS, mainly because I feel I've been fighting in the trenches here in my particular corner of Africa to try promote speculative fiction. What was the final tipping point for you to decide to get involved to help set up the Nommos?

Geoff Ryman: You know, I have no memory what kicked it off. I was was reading stuff on the African Fantasy Reading Group and just thought 'sod it, we need an award and it will have to be entirely in Africa. Just keep everybody else out, me included. I had just come back from Nairobi and had loved the writers there, their mood of owing so little to everybody else, just growing their own wild sort of beatnik scene. And I was very impressed talking to Moses Kilolo and Richard Oduor Oduku, how they had got Jalada together by talking through all the issues first. So I just starting chatting online with the group, and all those good people who formed the Awards Discussion Group came on board. At first its was difficult. We all came with assumptions about how it would work and insecurities. Sometimes it seemed like we had all agreed only to have that agreement unravel. We took the discussion out of the open reading group and made it a private message group but it never got too heated... the odd hot moment. But we came up with some lovely stuff. The definitions of different kinds of Africans. The realisation we didn't want a panel of experts choosing for us, nor did we want a fan voting award like the Hugos, which had been in trouble. 

I really really wanted it to be in the gift of the African Fantasy Reading Group – but I had to admit that even in my view the Nebula Awards which allow the writers to nominate and then to vote the winners seems a really good model. At that point we all got excited about the possibilities of a pro and semi-pro African SF body in terms of other things that are needed. Like. A really good critical review of Arican SFF. Like, an outreach to French, Portuguese, Arabic SFF and most especially to local language SFF. The conversations were thrilling because you could really feel the whole thing come together. Yes! This is going to WORK! The other thing was sending out the invitations to get a solid core of invited members to make sure that there really WAS an society... though it was the needs of the URL that finally settled the name. The other great moment was when we saw Stephen Embleton's designs for the leaflet and website and thought YEAH. And the the thrill when Ivor Hartmann told us Tom Ilube had promised four years of prize money. So many exciting, fun, moments. I'm an old guy and I'm really lucky to be part of something this enrolling at this stage of my life.

Tade Thompson: I just took a look at the original Nommo Awards discussion and there are over 3500 messages. A lot of people contributed including Wole Talabi, Masimba Musodza, Shadrek Chikoti, Ayodele Arigbabu, Mame Diene and more. Sometimes individuals had to take a time out from the discussions (I know I did), and others did not return. It's not an easy thing to come to a compromise. I don't see the heated nature of the discussions as a negative thing. To me it meant everybody was thinking and voices were not being silenced. One of my concerns was for the prize to avoid funding from the West, for example. Piper, tune, you know what I mean. The definition of what was an African we found particularly problematic. Hopefully, we've come up with a working definition.

ND: What makes African speculative fiction unique, in your opinion? I've found through my editing that Africa's rich oral tradition of telling folk stories has a habit of creeping in and flavouring rather beautifully. This was particularly apparent when I was working on SSDA's Terra Incognita anthology.

GR: God, so many things make it unique... its relationship to the West, its relationship to the traditional cultures, the fantastic cultural diversity. The power that comes from being where the action is... that's where the novel goes always, and Africa is where the action is right now. In the West people explore tensions between conflicting ways of being like religion VERSUS science. In Africa monotheism, trad beliefs, science all share the same space like butterflies on a bougainvillea. It's about overlap and co-existence, not stress. Also Africans in our out of diaspora just do not do genre. 

They write crime and fantasy, paint, make films, graphic design, are in a band and they do it all well.

The great untapped source of voice, difference, interest is language. Africans have just his second stopped looking to the West for validation, writing in a style that the West can understand. Stay tuned for flavourful prose more related to Sheng, Pidgin, Kiswahili or translations into English form material imagined in the language of the people who live it. So, language, which in the end equals diversity. 

TT: From my perspective, developing African SFF needs at least three elements: Respectable awards, a tradition of magazines to serve as venues for emerging talent, and a healthy publishing industry. Omenana (to me) opens the magazine tradition up. The Nommos should help give people something to aspire to. 

The ASFS helps to unite people like you, Nerine, and Chinelo for example, who have been fighting individually to raise the SFF profile on the continent. I think together we can get more done.

To me there should not be "African" sci-fi/fantasy any more than there should be an "African" writer. None of those qualifications should be necessary. We are just writers of SFF who have a relationship with the continent. Individually, we often have relationships with other places as well (for example, I have equal roots in South London). There is also a conflation of African SFF with Afrofuturism that I see sometimes in articles, blog posts etc.   They are not the same thing, although there are areas of intersection. 

ND: What are some of the long-term goals you foresee for the ASFS and speculative fiction on the continent in general?

GR: An anthology of nominated works. A programme with the French, Arabic, Portuguese and local language worlds. Publications in Luo on one page facing the page of English translation so that local languages can be sold bound in with the English. An expanding awards programme to recognise the outstanding auteur cinema springing up outside and maybe inside Nollywood. A searchable database of published novels, stories, graphic novels. A programme of Wikipedia maintenance to keep everybody's bios and bibliographies available and accurate. Programmes to encourage developing writer. BUT ABOVE ALL ELSE. Developing the audience in terms of both numbers and its expectations. Giving African writers Africans to write for, in genres that are controlled by African readers. So I hope the pros don't leave behind the 1000+ African Readers on Facebook. I hope both groups grow together, readers and writers. They are on the same side. 

TT: African speculative fiction or African Sci-Fi/Fantasy isn't unique. It is writers exploring the imagination and writing fantastical fiction either emanating from science or the mystical (or both), taking their environment and cultural reality into consideration. This is exactly what SFF writers do everywhere. In this regard, there is no difference between Nnedi Okorafor, Aliette de Bodard and Cordwainer Smith. That the cultures from which the writers emerge have differences does not matter.  Storytelling differences can reflect cultures, but that's to be expected. When I started reading Haruki Murakami my mind all but exploded. I never thought, though, that I'm reading "A Japanese Writer". To me part of the job of the ASFS is to demonstrate that we're here and we're like SFF writers everywhere, to bring fucking quality to the party, and mindpain to the haters!


GEOFF RYMAN is senior lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is the author of several works of science fiction and literary fiction as well as short stories author and an interactive web novel. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James W. Tiptree Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice) and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette 'What We Found'.  His novel AIR was listed in THE GUARDIAN's 1000 Novels You Must Read. 253 is listed by Carmen Maria Machado on the GRANTA website as the best book of 1998.

He has a Leverhulme International Academic Fellowship to research the rise of science fiction and fantasy in Africa.  He also organises two reading groups of mainstream African Fiction, both called ARG!  One meets in London the first Sunday of every month 4.30 pm at BOOK AND KITCHEN bookshop. The Manchester Group meets the third Tuesday 6.30 pm at HABESHA restaurant.

TADE THOMPSON lives and works in the south of England. His background is in medicine, psychiatry and anthropology. His first novel MAKING WOLF won the Golden Tentacle Award at The Kitshies. His most recent works are the short story THE APOLOGISTS in Interzone #266, DECOMMISSIONED in the NewCon Press anthology 'Crises and Conflicts', and the novel ROSEWATER from Apex Books.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Assassin's Quest (Farseer Trilogy, #3) by Robin Hobb

Title: Assassin's Quest (Farseer Trilogy, #3) 
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Harper Voyager, Kindle edition 2007

The thing with the Farseer books is that they go dark —far darker than I'd ever had fantasy go when I first seriously started reading the genre. We join Fitz at his lowest ebb. He's lost everything, the woman he loves, his position at court. He'd be a hunted criminal if it weren't for the fact that everyone believes that he's dead. As it is, he's known as the Witted Bastard, and has become something of a bogeyman used to frighten children. Yeah, so that totally sucks.

Free for the first time in his life to act with agency, Fitz chooses to avenge himself on the one who's responsible for creating the hell that has become his life – Regal, now king of the Six Duchies. And yet he's not free, for the duty laid upon him by his uncle Verity draws him to the Mountain Kingdom to aid the true heir in his mission to free the kingdom from the marauding Red Ship Raiders.

Hobb goes further to explore the relationship between Fitz and his wolf Nighteyes, in all its beautiful subtlety. Her deft strokes expand on the nature of the relationship with the enigmatic Fool, who will always be present, helping and, sometimes, hindering. Ketricken and Fitz also have a special relationship that is deep and abiding – and I dare say a true bond.

This is my second read through the book, and as expected, I missed a lot the first time and though I recalled the gist of what happens, there is so much layering to rediscover that it felt as if I were reading the story again for the first time. We are presented with the ancient mysteries of the Elderlings, the dragons, the lost magic of the stones. Our heroes sift through the ashes of a fallen civilisation, hardly understanding the artefacts that they uncover. 

As always, Fitz's self-talk is heavy; he is at the end of the day his own worst enemy and he remains perhaps one of the most enduring and endearing fantasy characters I've had the pleasure of getting to know.

The Farseer books reward patient readers. I've heard folks complain that things take a long time to unfold, but I will keep saying this: nothing Hobb puts in her story goes to waste. Pay attention to every detail because, no matter how inconsequential it seems, it will invariably play an important role later.

I cannot underscore enough what an important work this is in the collective oeuvre of modern fantasy. Hobb deserves all the honours she receives for her immense contribution to this genre, and I stand forever humbled in her shadow.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dealbreakers: Yes, we judge your book by its cover

I hear, “My friend designed my book cover,” or “I designed my book cover using MS Word, what do you think?”

As someone who’s been immersed in the media industry since she first crawled out of her Spur waiter apron, I *cringe* when I hear these words.

Thing is, you can have written the Best Book Eva, but if the cover makes me feel too embarrassed to be seen within a twenty metre radius of your voluminous tome, then, Houston, we have a problem.

There’s that wonderful adage about not judging books by their covers but we all know that’s a stinking pile of camel turds. Your book’s cover will be the first thing that catches a person’s eye, and I’m going to make you very sad by saying that the first time people see your book cover it will most likely be a teeny-tiny thumbnail-sized image on a vendor’s website and not in prime shelf position in a swanky bookstore. So it becomes even more critical to design with that in mind even before you start having a thromby over what you want on your cover.

A cover doesn’t tell the entire story in one picture, it communicates the essence or theme of your novel. For instance (and excuse me while I gag) there’s a reason why a large percentage of African literature dressed up for the international market will have a glorious sunset with thorn trees in the background. It screams Africa. Even if the novel only has something vaguely to do with the bushveld. The publisher wants to immediately tell a potential reader that LOOK HERE IS A BOOK ABOUT AFRICA.

It sucks. But it is industry standard.

Think about the recent explosion of GrimDark fantasy. How many of those covers have a Bloke in a Cloak on the front cover. Or romance and erotica covers that have the prerequisite headless male torso?

A book cover gives you *seconds* to snag a reader’s attention. If they’re already attuned to a specific genre and your cover’s style matches, chances are better that they’ll bother to read the blurb. (Pay attention, I may repeat this later on because it's fucking important.)

But I’m going to digress a moment. Bear with me. With the advent of modern technology getting all spiffy like, I’ve seen an alarming increase of the use of CGI modelling for the people used on covers. My word: DO NOT DO IT.


Why? I promise you, it looks like shit. Really. It looks like crap. It makes your novel look like a bad video game from the late 1990s. Don’t believe me? Just feast your eyes on this hot mess. Then thank me for talking you out of it.

But let’s get back to style, shall we, because that’s the catch. Every genre, be it a thriller, a whodunnit, military SF, romance or YA dystopias, has a range of styles in cover art that will appear within a genre. Your romance novels tend to have photo-manipulated images featuring torsos, wolves etc to give a quick, dirty hint that we’re dealing with a ménage à trois vs. shifter romances. Fantasy novels tend to have one or two heroic figures (and of late, the near-ubiquitous a Bloke in a Cloak) in a near-realistic illustrative style. Literary novels often feature stylised illustrations related to the theme of the novel. Colour is important too – bright, primary colours often feature in children’s books while horror novels may go for plenty of dark tones with flashes of lurid red to catch the eye.

Effective nonverbal communication encapsulated in your (hopefully) awesome cover art might mean the difference between a potential reader continuing with their desultory scan of a selection of works vs. them slowing down to read the blurb and check out the reviews of your novel. A cover that differs from its brethren in horribad way, will reflect your novel in a poor light. (Well, if the cover looks like it was shat out by a goat with chronic diarrhoea, the writing can’t be much better, amiright?)

If you’re an indie author, it’s even more important that your cover matches the standards of its traditionally published brethren. At a glance, your book must appear no different. Which means you need to take a good stab at emulating the style of illustration and typographical treatment of your competitors (who often have considerable budgets). And that will extend not only to the style of the artwork and design, but also to the subject matter.

If you’re writing about a kick-ass heroine with a magic sword, chances are extremely high that you’re going to have a sexy, bad-ass lady on the front cover standing in some epic pose with a drawn blade on a cliff. The artwork must scream EPIC in big letters. Likewise, if you’re writing a sweet romance, you will in all likelihood opt for a fully clothed couple looking all lovey-dovey comped into some sort of pastel-shaded landscape. With doves. And pretty flowers.

Okay. Enough of that. [Stomps on fairies]

Resist the temptation to try show the entire story or a key scene from the novel (unless it's a shit-hot key scene that just yodels cinematic oomph – like omigod they're all gonna get eaten by that there dragon). At best, you’re aiming for is mood and theme, and the image on the front cover may not necessarily even take place in the novel. You may even opt to go for something completely abstract – for instance an Indiana Jones-style adventure thriller might have a map and an ancient artefact on the cover, with the typography. The two items already communicate the essence of what the novel is about without having to resort to using human figures.

Not quite sure what you want? LOOK at a dozen books that are similar to what yours is. See what they share in common. Figure out what you’ll need to match it.

At the very basic, you need a) an image, b) a graphic designer with experience in book cover design. (Later on you may get kinky enough to hire your own photographer and creative director, mkay?)

Now, where do you get your images?

First of all, let’s talk about where you DON’T get your images. If you want to get yourself into a world of trouble, you’ll download and use images off Google willy nilly. This is stealing. Don’t do it. You really, really don’t want to taint your name in this reputation-based business by stealing another artist’s hard work. DON'T BE A DICK, IOW.

If you need visuals, you can purchase the rights to use royalty-free images from sites such as iStock, Shutterstock or Adobe. And it’s really not that expensive. One image can cost anywhere from $30 upwards. These sites will have photos, illustrations and vector graphics – so if it’s something you need for a comped image or that you’re happy to use ready made, there’s a lot to look through.

If you decide to go with an illustrator, there are loads of really talented people you can find on sites like Behance or deviantArt. Take time to browse and be sure when you eventually engage with them that their art matches your final vision closely.

When you negotiate, set your terms. Some artists may want a 50% upfront with balance paid on sign-off. Do discuss a kill fee. This protects both of you in case things don’t work out so you don’t feel obliged to pay for something that doesn’t work and the artist still has some compensation for their time. Provide your artist with a comprehensive brief – so this is a full description of characters, poses. Supply examples of the cover art you’re trying to emulate, the mood. Even pictures of clothing, people who resemble your characters, backgrounds, props – all this is gold for your artist and will help them meet your vision halfway. Make sure to tell your artist what size you require – I usually brief in at A4 for 300dpi but comic book artists I’ve spoken to will work at about A4 at 600dpi. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the terms too well – suffice to say that we’re talking about page size and the amount of dots per inch (resolution) of image. You don’t want small images on your cover that look blurry and pixelated. Oh, and discuss a deadline. That's important too.

Once you have your final, signed-off image, be it a photo manipulation, photo or illustration, you’ll go speak to your graphic designer (though some graphic designers do offer photo manipulation services, so be sure to ask). You’ll brief them thoroughly too, showing them examples of those other book covers you’re trying to outshine. You'll also take a gander at their creative portfolio to be sure that they'll be up to the task. You’ll talk to them about the end product and supply them with the technical specifications for the print and ebook covers (which you should be able to get from your vendor’s site). You’ll make damned sure that they have all the information they need so that all you’ll need to do is upload that file without any complications. But as you would with an illustrator, for the love of dog, find a professional who has the right equipment and experience for the work. Don’t ask your cousin’s boyfriend or your best friend’s neighbour who allegedly knows a thing or two about CorelDRAW.

I said CorelDRAW. Ugh.

You want a professional-looking cover. This means you’re playing publisher and taking the financial risk for a product that looks awesome. Unfortunately this does mean you’ll need to spend money. Don’t cut corners.

And, unless you’re actually already employed in the media industry with years and years of experience with the relevant apps, don’t try to do it yourself. Therein lies only pain, unless you can be completely honest about your attempts and invest hours and hours until you get the fucking thing right. (And let’s be honest, most folks won’t be able to tell when their design is shit.)

So my advice here is SPEND THE FUCKING MONEY. Get it done properly, by professionals. The first time.

My experiences with small presses have been mixed. Most small presses with which I’ve published have skimped on design, and if you look at my earlier book covers, it tells. A great illustration looks like shit when the typography is half-arsed. Yet every time I coughed up the dough or pulled in favours with the right people, I ended up with something awesome. (Though I’m really fortunate that my lovely husband is a shit-hot designer, and occasionally I can twist his arm to get him to help me out with cover art.)

What this means from here on in is that I’m no longer going to put myself at the mercy of others. I am ready to drop hundreds of dollars to pay the right artists to get the job done so I don’t end up cringing when I see my older books.

You owe it to yourself to avoid your novel from showing up on this Tumblr.

And if you’re looking for help with your book cover, feel free to contact me at nerine@helicopterdesign.co.za. Chat to me about what you need, what your budget is, and I’m happy to advise and quote, and put you in touch with illustrators and photographers, and have my lovely husband design something super awesome for you. I won't break your piggy bank. And I won't sugarcoat my opinion either.

A small selection of our work...

Illustration & design, Thomas Dorman

Image retouching & design, Thomas Dorman

Image retouching & design, Thomas Dorman
Image retouching & design, Thomas Dorman

Photography & image manipulation,
Thomas Dorman

Image manipulation & design,
Thomas Dorman

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) #reviews

Famed archaeologist/adventurer Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones is called back into action when he becomes entangled in a Soviet plot to uncover the secret behind mysterious artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls.

Concluding our epic revisiting of the Indiana Jones franchise, we reached Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Since a fair amount of time passed in real life, this is reflected in Crystal Skull. We hook up with a much older, much more reflective Indy in his autumn years. That being said, he still possesses a typical Indy habit of landing himself in hot water.

This time the Soviets have replaced the Nazis as villains, and we find ourselves in a milieu in the grips of the Cold War, set up  against the deliciously evil Dr Spalko (played by Cate Blanchett, who remains one of my favourite actors).

While McGuffins present in previous films were of a sacred nature (the Ark of the Covenant, holy stones, Holy Grail) the object everyone's gasping after this time is a crystal skull pilfered from a Native American tomb. What follows is a typical wild race to a location filled with hostile natives, traps and certain death.

What I loved about this film is that it refers back to previous instalments by bringing Indy back with the indomitable Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders and some fresh daredevil blood with Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). There's a shift in dynamics since Indy isn't quite as spry as he used to be, so Mutt is there to play active sidekick.

I was prepared not to like this film – after all, how often can you reprise the same characters until the Law of Too Much Awesome kicks in. I'm not going to lie – the ending was epic, and most certainly *not* what I expected – but I enjoyed the ride and the film held a solid internal consistency. There's nothing higher grade with an Indiana Jones film. It's action. It's humorous dialogue. Granted, a few of the gags were just downright awful (the scene involving quick sand and the snake rope – I was like, nope, that's really the kind of humour you'd expect to entertain a five-year-old) but overall the movie engaged me, made me smile and scratched the right itches I have for an Indy film.

The epilogue was suitably heartwarming and tied up enough "happy for nows", and they *could* have left well enough alone there with Indy's stories and have been fine, but yeah *sigh* ... they're busy with Indiana Jones 5 with Harrison Ford ... And I'll be honest, I'm dubious on whether it's right or whether it's practical for them to do this. Crystal Skull is a perfect stopping place. If anything, breathe fresh air into the franchise by telling the story of his granddaughter, if Disney absolute has to. I pray (and this is something that may even drive me to feeling slightly religious) that the screenwriters don't fuck this up. PLEASE don't fuck this up. I've a soft spot for my favourite professor. He's getting old and creaky, and I'd like his story to end well, without it becoming cringe-worthy.

If you've been enjoying my reviews or my blog, do consider stalking following me on Twitter if you don't already do so and, for those who enjoy SFF stories, your support on Patreon will mean the world to me and help me continue to craft great tales.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Letter Home by Winter Wren (Celt Mom) #reviews #fanfiction

Okay, I've decided to start reviewing fanfiction because of late I've been finding stories that really work for me on many levels. What I discover in the fics that I love is that they take the usual tropes and put a spin on them that is memorable. A Letter Home by Winter Wren (over at AO3) has hit me in the feels. There're a lot of Dragon Age Inquisitor fics doing the rounds that are basically a retelling of DA:I from the Quizzy's point of view, and yes, all too often they're female Lavellan getting it on with a certain bald apostate hobo elf, so what Winter Wren has done has been fresh – for me, at least.

(Hey, I'm guilty as charged with writing mainly Solavellan smut, but jawellnofine, this is fanfiction we're talking about.)

Okay. So, I'm no huge fan of The Iron Bull. I appreciate him as a character, and as Patrick Weekes said in this most excellent interview that I totally recommend listening to, it would have been so easy to make Bull really one-dimensional. And yet ... He is a character who has surprising depth beneath that tough façade. Unfortunately he just never blew my hair back (though I admit that I had the horrible feels at the end of my second run through the Trespasser DLC, and now I will forever feel bad for all the Vashoth running around southern Thedas post-Trespasser in that particular version of the game).

And I so didn't see myself reading an entire fic featuring a Bull romance with a Vashoth Quizzy, but there you have it. I pretty much ate through and loved all of A Letter Home, even though it didn't truly cover fresh ground considering it's a reconstruction of the main game narrative.

Yet Winter Wren does absolutely amazeballs OCs. Her characterisation is beautiful, and she seamlessly blends in backstory in such a way to flesh out her characters without resorting to reams of exposition. Anaan Adaar (the Quizzy's father as wonderful secondary character) and Inquisition agent Turner's moments together are priceless – the unlikely friendship warms my heart. I particularly loved how Anaan interacted with Varric over an evening of Wicked Grace (I'd been dying to see the two hang out since the beginning of the story). My inner editor did very little twitching (as in I was more than happy to overlook a few bumps because the writing is so smooth), and in fact I'd happily say here is one fic writer who could most certainly file off the serial numbers and give it a go writing novels. Dialogue as well, between characters, is lively and sparkling, and had me chuckling at a number of points. (Note to authors, yes, characters can make off-colour jokes from time to time, and embarrass each other, or tease, and it's fun, and makes things feel more authentic.)

Essentially, this is the story about Bull coming to terms with his life after the Qun, and Meraad Adaar getting a handle on her role as Inquisitor while also processing issues from her past and finding love in a most unexpected way. The two together make a beautiful couple and yes, this is heavier on the romance angle, but the action sequences (especially the dragon hunt in the Hinterlands) are solidly executed.

There is more, and I'm looking forward to the other stories.

I will be reviewing more fanfiction as I go along, but my preference is for IPs that I'm familiar with and stories that resonate with me, mostly Middle-Earth and Dragon Age; and as such, I am not open to queries to read stories.

Friday, August 19, 2016

INSPIRE! In conversation with Cat Hellisen, author

Cat Hellisen and I go way back, all the way back to Cape Town's Sanctuary nights at the old Purple Turtle during the late 1990s where DJ Reanimator used to spin Bauhaus and Einstuerzende Neubauten ... okay, no, wait, that's ancient prehistory. But it's safe to say we've known each other for years, and Cat's one the people who's helped inspire me to attain the highs (and helped keep me going through the lows) of this thing called SFF publishing.

Not only is she the creator of some of the most profound, nuanced fantasy I've read in recent years, she also possesses a keen understanding of SFF as a genre, and I value her opinion when it comes to our discussions about this industry. If you've yet to check out her novels, go take a gander at her Amazon page

So, without further ado, here's a transcript of a little dialogue we had this week, in which we discuss world building, theme and trends in SFF...

ND: Stories and the world around you – I've loved recognising bits of the world I know in your stories (like Pelimburg in your Hobverse) or even the way you've portrayed Joburg in Charm. With your recent move to Scotland, are there parts of your new space that inspire you? That may creep into the story?

CH: I'm very much influenced by my environment (to the point that you can tell which of my books are written in what season) so there are definitely elements that are going to take root in the story soil. The book I'm working on now has a quasi-European setting, so it kinda helps to be in Scotland. Not that the landscape is Scottish particularly, but I know exactly what a jackdaw sounds like now, and elements like that will inform the text. It's also pretty amazing to be in a country where I can go walk around the ruins of castles and forts, where ancient churches are as much a part of the landscape as shopping malls. To be able to get close-up looks at old stone work and so on, or go into the caves where Saint Margaret went to pray - they help with building a mental picture for me as I write.

ND: Do you have any idée fixes? For instance, reading Marguerite Poland’s books, she often brings in the theme of birds that convey a theme. Are there any favourite, small details in real life that have crept into your stories – little Easter eggs as such that people have picked up on? 

CH: I don't know if I'd call them idée fixes, but there are definitely recurring elements from my psychological landscape that litter my writing and I do rather like that. I always think of JG Ballard and his empty swimming pools, or John Irving and his bears. I don't set out to incorporate these motifs, but they're obviously things I fixate on: labyrinths, and the Space Between Worlds (which sometimes doubles as the labyrinth), masks, birds, and water. As far as themes go, I remember someone once telling me that my constant theme is broken boys saving each other, which is a little unfair because my girls are just as broken, but they wear better masks.

ND: We appear to be seeing what appears to be a new wave of readers (and authors) of SFF who're getting into the genre in the wake successes like Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, yet when I've spoken to them, very few have heard of classics such as Ursula K LeGuin, CJ Cherryh, Katharine Kerr and others of their ilk. I know this discussion crops up often online on the lists, but if you had to make a checklist of must-read fantasy authors, who would you suggest and why do you think it's so important for others to read outside of their comfort zone?

CH: Read outside your comfort zone because you never know what wonder will strike, what new concept or thought. For fiction, if people are coming from a tradition of Harry Potter, I'd definitely suggest they read Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series, and le Guin's marvelous Earthsea books. I began my speculative education on my father's library hauls, so I had a grounding in classic SF - in Asimov, Aldiss, Poul Anderson, James Blish, etc, but I veered away from them and toward writers like Tanith Lee, Clive Barker, Octavia Butler, Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, Poppy Z Brite and Mary Gentle. If they're looking for more modern writers there is a wealth of new and less-new speculative authors - I'd suggest looking at presses like Small Beer, Apex, and Solaris. Weightless Books is an ebook store that stocks a range of good small press work.

I also encourage people to read widely on the subjects that fascinate them and go right back to the key works in that field. The more you know about the world and history and politics, the more informed and nuanced your work will be.

ND: What are some of the issues you pick up in contemporary SFF that you suspect are related to the paucity of authors’ source material? For instance I’ve encountered so many writers who’ve been inspired because they’ve read Twilight or The Hunger Games, and that is pretty much the first experience they’ve had with truly reading – and now they want to go out and create. Yet in one case, a lady returned to me saying that when I’d turned her onto reading Wuthering Heights, she’d struggled because of the unfamiliar vocabulary. And her writing showed this paucity that no amount of editing could fix.

CH: It depends what you're reading. Yes, some of the larger houses put out work that is strained by the writer's lack of familiarity with the genre, and these books end up reinventing the wheel, or serving us the same old pap in a plastic bowl, but there is also great stuff coming out, often from smaller presses. As you say though, the great stuff with the better ideas and higher level of writing comes from writers who are readers, and you can spot it instantly in their work. They are the writers who make Classical references that they expect their readers to get without hand-holding, or whose books are a conversation with the stories that have come before. They use language skilfully and play with words in a way a less-well read writer simply can't.

It's become a bit of a cliche to say it, but I believe that you cannot be a decent writer if you are not first and foremost a reader.

ND: Do you think the bigger houses should (or would) look at starting up smaller, boutique imprints or do you think those small presses and co-operatives that are starting up in this literary vacuum are going to fill that need for readers and authors? Considering, especially, the high overheads attached to even bringing out an anthology (there are hidden costs readers generally aren't aware of). What do you see as a possible future for publishing.

CH: I have no idea what the future holds. I'm tentatively going to suggest that it's going to carry on pretty much as-is, with the large presses putting out big names and sure-fire type sellers (celeb bios, On Topic Thrillers, etc) and taking the occasional chance when marketing allows, and the smaller presses will fill the niches with more interesting stuff, and some of those smaller presses are going to become larger and larger and forces to be reckoned with. And so it will go.

I am very excited about the co-operative model because I think this is where the mid-listers are going to congregate. In recent years the concept of the mid-list author who is not a household name, but built up a decent fan base over a collection of novels, and now sells consistently, has all but been eradicated. You either make it big out the box, or you're dumped for the next New Author Who Might Make It Big. Writing generally improves over time, so writers aren't really getting the opportunity anymore to build their audience and develop their voice. And I think that's where co-ops and small presses are going to come in.

ND: One thing that I've always appreciated about your writing is its layering and nuance – how do you approach this?

CH: Thank you kindly! It goes back to the reading non-fiction thing. Being curious about the world you actually live in is a great way to enrich your imaginary worlds. And twitter is not the world. Go walk outside, go explore aimlessly, go to the library and grab a book from the history section that looks interesting. Find out about your family secrets and stitch them into your own stories.

On a writing level, I approach it by revising, revising, revising. I need all that information in my brain to get embroidered into my writing, and that only happens with revision. Layering is one of the most important aspects of revision - going in and reworking the warp and weft, strengthening the story where it needs strengthening, unravelling the bits that are tangled nonsense. To drag this metaphor on to its inevitable conclusion - you don't make story out of just cloth tacked together, you need shape, you need strengthened seams, you need hidden pockets, silk linings, buttons and embroidery.

ND: I’ve always tried to explain to authors that adding layering is about engaging the physical senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – but also about engaging with emotion and intellect. Often writers think it’s fine to have a ‘laundry list’ of descriptions but don’t quite immerse how environment or events relate to the character. How would you suggest they break through this barrier to making their writing flow?

CH: Ah, the laundry list. Description of physicality and mannerisms is not characterisation. If a person had to describe me as only "a loud chubster with dyed red hair, wearing mum-jeans." It might be accurate on some level, but it would tell you nothing about who I am. It would be fine if you were writing me as a once-off character who merely imparts some information to our Intrepid Hero, but if I was a main or secondary character, there needs to be more there to make me a human, to make me a character the reader feels they know.

That means adding dimensions that are more than just surface, superficial description. I talk about interiority - what emotion do they feel, how does it physically affect them, what do they sense. "Get inside their head" is a favourite critique which I think you know I've levelled at more than a few betas. Ask yourself questions about why a character does something in your book - build them a back story. Write it down if necessary. But a real character has a history, and it lies under the surface of everything you write about them, and informs every on-page decision they make.

ND: And for you, if you had to pick some of your all-time favourite characters/characterisation, who is this and why do you think the author nails it in this particular case(s).

CH: Ah wow this is a tough one. So many good works out there, and what's a favourite? My favourites change over time, though there are a few constants. I'm a sucker for a certain character type, I won't pretend otherwise. I love Howl and Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle, Pie'oh'pah from Barker's Imagica, Tenar (and Ged) from The Tombs of Atuan. Actually, Ged is a very good example of a character who grows and changes through the books. In A Wizard of Earthsea, he is cocksure and difficult to like, and power gives him an arrogance that ultimately is his downfall. I like Ged better in Atuan, where he's a little wiser and a little more broken. If you read the Under the Poppy trilogy by Kathe Koja, following her two puppeteers and sometime spies, you get a pretty good idea of the characters I love.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) #film

When Dr. Henry Jones Sr. suddenly goes missing while pursuing the Holy Grail, eminent archaeologist Indiana Jones must follow in his father's footsteps and stop the Nazis.

Indy's entanglements with the Nazis as arch-villains are pretty much stock standard fare for his exploits. At least by the third in the series, it's on the verge of becoming – dare I say it? – old hat. Nevertheless, Last Crusade is, in my mind, a stronger film than its predecessor in that it delves into the complicated relationship Indy has with his father (played by Sean Connery), as well as a final test of faith. We see Indy on the trail of rescuing his dad from the Nazis, with the aid of a femme fatale archaeologist Dr Elsa Schneider. She *is* rather distracting but she's far from the damsel in distress.

Of course the rescue mission does not go off smoothly. There are comical moments, when Indy and his dad are tied to a chair with the room burning around them – possibly one of my favourite Indy routines. The humour is silly, but so charming.

And of course the action, the stunts – they are typically edge-of-your-seat. Their journey eventually takes our heroes from Venice crypts and German castles to a mysterious city (in reality this is none other than The Treasury in Petra, Jordan, which is still on my bucket list of places to visit). As with each Indy film, there is a central theme and with this one it's a quest for the Holy Grail – which will allegedly gift the user with immortality. (Not a good thing for Hitler to have, no?) Indy and his dad take opposite stances, with Indy having chosen rationality his entire life while his dad has devoted his life to chasing a so-called magical object with all the fervour of a religious convert.

I need to digress here to this most excellent article by Leah Schnelbach about the religious themes running through this movie. Yes, it's a long article, but when you're done you'll possibly agree that the Indiana Jones films have far more substance than your bog-standard action films. Each time Indy has his brush with the supernatural, he clings stubbornly to science and reason, despite his experiences. Whether this is just his refusal to be swept away by that for which he has no logical explanation or him merely taking things in his stride, we're never quite sure, however he has perhaps his most important test in this film.

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan. Picture: Wiki Commons
The pacing with Last Crusade is tight – there's often little respite from one challenge to the next. Though the mechanisms of the dangers they face are not authentic, yet they have that fantasy elements that blend well and add a hyper-real, epic feel to the films – none of this will happen in real life but it's thrilling to watch. The slight slapstick edge is just right without feeling overdone as it had in Temple of Doom.

I admit that the first time I saw this film I didn't really love it as much as I did the previous ones. Second time round, I was assailed by the feels because of the father-son element. Harrison Ford is visibly older, and so is Indy – perhaps wiser but still the daredevil. I guess what makes Indy one of my perennial heroes is the fact that he thinks on his feet, often solving puzzles that I know for a fact would see me dead within instants. He has passion driving him – for knowledge, for discovering old secrets and revealing (and preserving) them for the good of mankind. Yes, he's a bit of a rogue, but his heart is in the right place. This film's a keeper.