A meditation on women in fantasy and scifi

I read a short story this week by a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author that had five characters — four men and one woman. The physical description of the one female character started with “high-breasted.” Not her hair color or eye color. Not her complexion. Just “high-breasted.”

The author’s treatment of the character didn’t improve from there. While all the male characters in the story had reasonably complex personalities, the woman in the story served almost exclusively as a sexual foil. She slept with two of the other characters in the story. And her personality was generally just a reflection of the protagonist. She amplified  his personality rather than challenged it. She was only a “high-breasted” source of moral support.

I’ve been acutely aware of issues like this ever since a sexist cover of the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America touched off a heated blog debate among authors in the market. Many authors, both men and women, have written very thoughtfully about this issue, like Delilah S. Dawson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Chuck Wendig has written a whole series of posts about the issue.

I’m an unpublished genre author and my experience with this situation is limited. I don’t have anything substantial to add to the debate. But this whole episode has made me much more thoughtful about how I portray women in my own work.

When I was describing the fantasy novel I am writing to a female friend of mine recently, she asked me if it had any strong women characters in it. My answer was a qualified yes. I had some interesting women characters, but not any strong women characters. The book has three protagonists — all boys or men. There were two major female characters. One dies early on. The other is pivotal to the plot, but rather passive. I think this is a problem.

The issue has been percolating in the back of my mind as I work on the book. Coincidentally I reached a point in the writing process where the book wasn’t working. The plot was not coming together the way I wanted it to. I started avoiding the book. I lost the will to deal with it.

I stepped away from the writing process for a couple weeks and did a lot of thinking. I realized that I needed to change some the motivations of my principal characters to unlock the plot. To do this, I needed to a couple more characters.

I decided that the new characters would be women. Not only women, but powerful women. Not damsels in distress. Not sex objects. Not foils. They would be well-rounded characters with their own hopes and dream. They would command respect within their communities. And they would have the ability to determine their own destiny.

These characters were not there to fulfill a quota of strong female representation. I needed them in the book. And as soon as they were added, the pieces of the plot started falling into place. With these women there, I was able to change the relationships between the men in the story. The women took on some of the roles previously played by male characters. The plot became more complex but it also started to make sense again. The book is back on track and I’m excited to be work on it once more.

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Human relationships in epic fantasy: Give me some quiet moments

As I was recently approaching the 95,000-word mark in the fantasy novel I was writing, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could just have a scene in a kitchen where my protagonist can talk to his girlfriend about something mundane. How was your day? How was work?”

In a genre where someone is always saving the world, fighting monsters, casting wondrous spells, or fulfilling a prophecy, who has time for the quiet moments?

Author Brian Staveley published a refreshing guest blog from his wife Johanna about how heroes of epic fantasy tend to be crappy boyfriends. And she’s right. Her take on the hero of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:

I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

Hey, I loved The Eye of the World when I was 14, and I still enjoyed it when I read it a second and a third time, but let’s be honest. Rand al’Thor is a bad boyfriend. He’s a pretty complex character, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on dates. He doesn’t spend a lot of time relating to people. He’s brooding. He’s leading armies. He’s fighting evil. There’s not a lot of time for his humanity to shine through, except with his own tortured internal dialogue.

Too many fantasy authors (and genre authors in general) focus too much on driving their plots forward. Given that the fate of the kingdom, world, galaxy or universe typically turns on the outcome of the plot, it’s easy to see why we do this. Who has time to talk about relationships when the evil devil king is leading an army of undead against the city?

But quiet moments are often the moments that allow us to fall in love with a character. They help us find a reason to root for the hero to get the girl (or boy) in the end. Not every scene has to have global consequences. Not every seen has to drive plot. And when you are devoting a scene to pure character development, don’t be afraid to throw in a little domestic drama. Your hero forgot to pick up a pail of milk at the market. His wife is so angry. They have a fight. He remembers why he first fell in love with her. He goes out to a field in the middle of the night and milks the neighbor’s cow for her.  Sure, in the next chapter he’s going to get into a sword fight with the mad prince, but for a quiet moment, we see what he’s fighting for and we care.

I recently read most of a fantasy novel, the first in a series, that had had some decent critical acclaim. (The book and author shall remain nameless out of respect.) I had to put this book down after about 350 pages. I simply didn’t care about any of the characters anymore. The hero had multiple relationships that were critically important to him and that motivated him to do the things he had to do. He had a best friend. He had a forbidden love that he longed for constantly. He had a mentor whom he loved and hated. But none of these relationships seemed authentic to me because the scenes that would have given them authenticity were missing. I never saw him fall in love with the girl. I never saw him strike up a friendship with the friend. I never saw him connect with the mentor in such a way that he would develop a complicated love/hate relationship with him. Instead, I was told that these relationships were there and I just had to take the author’s word for it. That’s not good enough. That’s bad writing.

If you’re going to make up a world for a fantasy or science fiction novel, don’t forget during your world-building to set aside some time to think about how human relationships work in that world.

When and how do husbands and wives connect with each other? It can’t be when the goddess of love commands them to.

How does a teacher or mentor win the respect and admiration of his pupil. It can’t be because he has snazzy armor.

How did your hero fall in love with the object of his love. It can’t be because she tugs on her braid in such a cute manner. Or maybe it can. But show me why it’s cute. And show me what he does and says when he sees her tug that braid. And then let those two kids go for a walk and talk about something other than Voldemort.

Zombies and politicians, Oh My! Mira Grant’s Feed

Have you ever forced yourself to finish a terrible book just to confirm to yourself that you are right: It really is terrible?

I picked up Feed by Mira Grant after it scored a Hugo nomination and a lot of good buzz from the science fiction press. It featured an intriguing premise: A political thriller set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of a blogger/journalist. I love politics, I’m a journalist, and I’ve recently renewed my interest in zombie literature after becoming a fan of The Walking Dead comic. So, I thought I’d enjoy Feed.

Unfortunately the experience of reading this book is like a clinic on how NOT to write a book. I suffered through all 571 pages primarily to emphasize to myself what I should avoid in my own writing.

Let’s start with the exposition. The information dump is the most treacherous trap in genre fiction writing. When you are building a world and placing your characters in it, you have to explain how that world works, whether it be some alien world, a sword and sorcery kingdom or a zombie-infested United States. The best authors do this efficiently and with subtlety. Mira Grant does not.

Her narrator dumps information relentlessly. She dumps info on everything. The nature of the zombie virus, the complicated and absurdly unbelievable mechanics of the blogging industry in her future, the process of earning a license to go out in the wilds of a zombie-infested world, the construction of zombie-proof buildings and vehicles, the laws about how to handle people who have been infected.

It seems like Mira Grant is more interested in information dumps than she is in telling a story, because when she does set out to tell the story between information dumps, almost nothing happens. There’s a scene late in the book where the narrator is setting up a video conference session with dozens of fellow bloggers to discuss a huge conspiracy. She devotes pages and pages to the details involved in setting up the conference call and securing it and getting everyone into the call. Then the video session commences and NOTHING HAPPENS. Seriously, you’re expecting her to tell her colleagues something interesting. She doesn’t. She fires everyone, then rehires them in some sort of contractual procedural madness that doesn’t matter to the plot. Then she pulls a couple people aside for some one-on-one discussions that, again, involve nothing interesting. I was expecting some plot advancement. In the end, all there was were empty dialog and information dumps. End of chapter.

What’s a good way to get a story going if you’re struggling with your plot and need to get out of information dump mode? How about some dialog? Mira Grant doesn’t know how to write dialog. Her main characters are bloggers in their early, early 20s (youth is fetishized intensely in this book). The main characters, narrator Georgia Mason,  her brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy are all kids. And they are all extremely unlikable. Mira Grant believes that snarky repartee makes for good dialog and character development. She is dead wrong. Get it? Dead.

Here are Georgia and Shaun and colleague Rick investigating the cause of a zombie horse outbreak at a ranch:

If anything odd happened here, we might find signs of it around their stalls,” [I said].

Under the six hundred gallons of gore,” Rick muttered.

Hope you brought a shovel!” Shaun called, sounding ungodly cheerful.

Rick stared at him. “Your brother is an alien.”

“Yeah, but he’s a cute one,” I said. “Start checking the stalls.”

And here are Georgia, Shaun and Rick reflecting on a tense encounter with soldiers pointing big guns at them.

“That really upset you, didn’t it?” [Shaun asked.]

“What, you mean the part where the nice guys with the big guns demonstrated over a live feed that I can be incapacitated by taking my glasses away? That didn’t bother me one bit.” I shoved Shaun’s feet off my lap. “Sit up. This isn’t a cruise.”

“Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn’t had her beauty sleep,” said Shaun, pushing himself upright. Twisting around to face Rick, he said, “So, Ricky-boy, you seen your ratings? Because I have some ideas to spice things up. Let’s start with nudity.”

Don’t you just want to spend 571 pages with these people? Cocky, pseudo-journalists who don’t report the news. All they do is self-aggrandize and editorialize and toss impersonal snark back and forth. The reader knows this because every chapter is book-ended with excerpts from their blogs. Ugh.

Next problem? Repetition! In a world where fears of viral zombification are constant, everyone is constantly getting their blood tested to prove that they’re not about to go undead. Entering a restaurant? Blood test. Checking into a hotel? Blood test. Entering your own house? Blood test. Unlocking the door to your car? Blood test? Entering a highly secure area? Blood test, blood test, blood test. That’s right, multiple blood test check points, where the character gets their fingers pricked by a needle and light flashes back and forth from red and green before settling on a color (Hint, red is bad. It means a bullet to the brain).

After the first few chapters, the reader is clear. Blood tests are everywhere. After 400 pages, I don’t need the author to devote a page or two in every chapter to the details of every blood test. I don’t need the narrator describing the different brands of blood test kits. Let’s give it a rest. Get to the story. Oh, that’s right, there is NO story.

The repetition doesn’t start and end there, either. Don’t get me started about narrator Georgia’s medical condition, related to the zombie virus, which has rendered her pupils permanently dilated and forced her to wear sunglasses everywhere. Rather than have nightmares about hungry zombies, I’m going to have nightmares about the countless pages devoted to Georgia’s light-induced headaches, moments where she gropes around for her sunglasses in the morning, and misunderstandings at security checkpoints where dudes with guns demand that she remove her sunglasses. Please, make it stop!

I could go on with the reasons why this book falls on its face… like its horrible inconsistencies. For instances, Georgia’s eye condition has disabled her tear ducts, which means she can’t cry with tears. She even remarks late in the book about how she wishes she could cry, but the virus that damaged her eyes have robbed her of that. How poignant… and yet, in the middle of the book she does cry. With real, live tears and everything. Anyway, moving on. Let’s get to the heart of why this book is a whole lot of suck.

There is no payoff. You suffer through all this mediocrity expecting to see some sort of revelation that is mildly interesting, but there isn’t one.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

This book is about a muddled, half-developed conspiracy. Georgia and Shaun and their follow bloggers are part of the press corps traveling with a front-running candidate for the GOP nomination for president, Senator Ryman. He’s an aw-shucks, down-to-earth, country boy with “straight white teeth,” who is about as one-dimensional as a line on a sheet of paper. His eventual running mate is Governor Tate of Texas. This guy might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead.

The book turns into a quest to find out why someone is trying to assassinate Ryman and/or derail his campaign by murdering the people around him — murder them with ZOMBIES!. Of course the bad guy is Tate, the asshole running mate who spouts off constantly about propriety and morality and God all the time… all while being really really really mean to Georgia and her fellow dirty bloggers. Any reader who is spoiled by the previous sentence should really get a blood test for the zombie virus, because you are BRAIN DEAD.

Anyway, in this book it’s up to Shaun and Georgia to discover he’s the bad guy and prove it. Why the CDC, the Army, the Secret Service and just about anyone with half a brain missed the obvious clues is beyond me. At one point a clue literally gets stuck in the bottom of Shaun’s shoe. No joke!

Even worse, when the bad guy (Tate) is confronted and revealed, his only explanation for why he was trying to kill Ryman and do assorted other bad things was to say that someone had to restore the “moral fiber” of America. Oh, please. Don’t we hear enough of this stupidity on MSNBC and Fox News?

Oh, and did I mention that this is the first book in a sequel about bloggers in zombie apocalypse? The next one is called Deadline, in which our surviving heroes seek out the conspirators who helped Tate do all his dastardly deeds.

This book is awful. After I read it, I tried to find some reviews. I’d only heard glowing endorsements, so I needed to dig deeper. I’ve been shocked by the majority of reviews that rave about it (mostly blogs and genre sites since no mainstream reviewing bodies have bothered to touch it). User reviewers are mostly positive, too. Probably 80% of Amazon reviewers gave it four or five stars. This is where you need to look hard at the bad reviews. The one- and two-star reviews. Read them closely and see if the complaints made by disgruntled readers (like me) are reasonable.

Don’t believe the hype on this one. Feed is terrible. I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone, even a diehard zombie fiction fanboy. Just don’t do it to yourself.

The Windup Girl: Incredible world-building

If you’ve ever read science fiction you know that world-building is a key ingredient in most books of the genre. Whether an author is writing about a galactic civilization set thousands of years into the future or imagining New York City in the year 2075, he has a lot of moving pieces to assemble: history, technology, politics, distant worlds, new cultures, alien races. World-building is a key component of a book’s setting. It can drive the plot. It can contribute to character development. In other words, it’s the backbone of the novel.

World-building is what distinguishes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl from the other books published last year. It is set more than a century from now, on an Earth that’s been devastated by global warming, corporate-sponsored bio-terrorism, the collapse of fossil fuel supplies and a world-wide shortage of food.

Bacigalupi has not only assembled a nightmare vision of the future. He’s also imagined how humanity has adjusted and survived. He shows us bio-engineers trying to resurrect long extinct crop plants. He imagines technologies for power-production, such as flywheels spun up by genetically enhanced elephants. He’s described an international network of “calorie companies,” enterprises which bio-engineer food, patent and license that food, and invent pestilential viruses and bacteria to wipe out the food of their competitors.

Ultimately the world-building of Bacigalupi serves as the back drop to the story the author is telling, which in itself is excellent. It won the Hugo and the Nebula last year, after all. But what I found most striking about this book is the mature vision of a speculative future that Bacigalupi brings to the table with this – his first novel. He world-builds like a veteran. It’s not easy. So many science fiction novels collapse under the weight of an author’s absurd and poorly constructed vision of an another world.

The world Bacigalupi created is so interesting and so terrifying that I want to go back to it again. Rather than read another book about the characters featured in The Windup Girl, I want to return to this world. It was a thought that ran through my head the whole time I was reading the book. This is an intriguing vision of the future, a future that is certainly possible. Exploring what it’s like to live in a future that is a consequence of the issues that loom over us today, such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion, is terrifying and yet compelling.

The Dispossessed: A society is only as good as its people

Do you believe in the perfectibility of mankind? I think all of us like to believe that there is some kind of template for a society that will bring out the best of everyone, where a person will do what is right and just and make decisions that are in the best interest of everyone — not just themselves.

And yet, how many novels have you read about some utopian society which turns out to be anything but a perfect world.

I think utopias are bunk. There is no ideal society. Any society is only as good as the individuals that live in it. Human nature trumps structure. Mostly, the world sucks, and we only have ourselves and our neighbors to blame. That’s the message of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

I’ve been mixing some classic scifi into my reading in 2010 (such as Zelazny’s This Immortal). It’s been fun. Older scifi doesn’t always age well, but there’s still some entertainment to be had and some wisdom to be gained. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed exemplifies that.

I recently listened to Tony C. Smith’s interview of author Connie Willis on his Star Ship Sofa podcast. Willis astutely pointed out, in so many words, that when scifi or any literature makes its political message plainly obvious to the reader, it loses its power. Le Guin’s message is rather plainly made, and that makes for a heavy-handed approach. She creates a whole world, inhabited by 20 million people, who are performing a 150-year social experiment. That seems pretty unlikely to me, but Le Guin depends on this as a device to prove her point.

Still, despite the heavy-handed approach, there’s a powerful message in The Dispossessed. The book is a tale of two worlds: Urras and Anarres. Urras is a big, verdant, and messy planet full of individual nations vying for political domination of the globe. It is a physical paradise with lots of political and economic problems. Anarres is a dry, harsh world colonized 150 years before by millions of anarchic, communist idealists from Urras. It is a harsh world where people live without government, yet they organize to work together to shelter themselves and stave off starvation.

The residents of Anarres think they live in a perfect society. They’ve eliminated the concepts of ownership and power and authority. There is no money. There are no leaders or bureaucrats. Everyone works collectively to serve the common good. They make decisions together on how to organize their resources. Everyone is supposed to be 100% free to pursue their lives as they see fit, so long as they contribute something to the world. They view Urras as “hell,” an ownership society where poor people work for low wages, oppressed by the wealthy and the political classes.

But Le Guin’s genius is on display when she reveals that the ideal society of Anarres isn’t quite a utopia. The main character, Shevek, is a physicist struggling to prove a scientific theory that is so advanced that no one on his planet can understand it, not even Sabul, the physicist who serves as his mentor at his university. Only a handful of scientists on Urras can follow his work.

Because the science is so esoteric, Shevek’s work is devalued. He is also ostracized from academia. Sabul works behind the scenes to strip Shevek of his ability to teach about his theories and he inhibits Shevek’s communications with the Urrasti scientists who understand his work. How can this happen? Sabul shouldn’t have the power to do that. No one on Anarres should have that power.

Well every society needs someone to make the decisions. On Anarres decisions are usually made by syndicates of experts who are supposed to rotate in and out of their positions. Sabul is a mediocre scientist who has found that he has much more aptitude as a bureaucrat. So he’s decided to build a little fiefdom in academia for himself. He uses his power to oppress Shevek, mostly because he doesn’t approve of the type of work Shevek is doing, but also because Shevek refuses to let Sabul take partial credit for the work. How does Sabul get away with this? Probably because there is no one in a position of authority for Shevek to appeal to. Even in an ideal society supposedly free of the power structures that people use to oppress others, that society can only be as good as its individual members.

This corruption of the Anarres ideal is on display throughout the book. A playwright who pens an unconventional comedy is ostracized by the public because people don’t understand his black sense of humor. The syndicate that organizes theatrical performances determines that his play is offensive to Anarres ideals and blacklists him.  He has no way to express his art anymore, so he’s forced to do manual labor as a vocation. Eventually he goes insane.

Le Guin makes it clear with countless examples that anyone who promotes ideas that defy any of Anarres’ conventions is met with scorn, hostility, harassment, and even violence. How is that possible on a world where personal freedom is placed above all else and individual wealth and power are banished?

Any society is only as good as its individual members. When enough of those individuals give into their own selfish desires, their fears, and their prejudices, those desires fears and prejudices can manifest themselves into something oppressive. We’ve seen it happen throughout history with slavery and Jim Crow and the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany. We’ve seen books banned from schools and libraries over trivialities. We’ve seen people burned at the stake. And in Le Guin’s utopia, we see it again. On a world  where millions of people have committed to serve an ideal, individuals who give in to their base desires and fears can ruin it for everyone else.

The joys of fanboy crossover madness

I love to read. I love to watch great TV.  The experience of reading a great book or watching a great show is nearly matched by introducing a friend to the same experience. In the years since I originally picked up A Game of Thrones, the first book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin, I have convinced about six people to read the series. All of them have loved it as much as I have. It is THE best fantasy series I have ever read. I love it more than Tolkien’s classics. I love it more than Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, which fell off the rails nearly a decade ago. And every time I see or hear of someone writing it, I get a little thrill. It allows me to recall the wonderful experience of reading the book for the first time…. sort of a vicarious thrill.

The Martin series is fantastic because it combines the epic grandeur of Tolkien with incredibly well-developed characters that readers fall in love with… Everyone I’ve introduced it to, whether they are fantasy fans or not, has loved these books.

Then there is Battlestar Galactica (the reboot). The TV series was perhaps the greatest hard scifi television program I have ever watched. From beginning to end, I loved it. It had its ups and downs, sure. And many were unhappy with the finale. But the show remains the standard for scifi television, and its departure from the airwaves has left a gaping wound in many fans’ hearts.

For many geeks, Battlestar and Ice and Fire stand at the pinnacle of their respective genres. Many fans still mourn the loss of Battlestar and they despair at Martin’s years-long delay in writing the fifth installment in the Ice and Fire series.

As a fan with a deep emotional connection to both of these franchises, I was struck mightily by a tweet I saw on Twitter recently. Tricia Helfer, the actress who played Six, the leggy blonde cylon on Battlestar tweeted from a hospital waiting room:

Almost 1/2 way thru A Storm of Swords. I wonder if I’ll get thru the rest of it on this long day of waiting. Prob not, it’s 1180 pages!!

A Storm of Swords is the second book in the Ice and Fire series. Not only did I get the usual thrill of knowing that someone else is reading these books for the first time. She was someone who was connected to one of the other great scifi/fantasy franchises I’ve experienced. These two worlds collided in a fun way that fanboys all over could buzz about. Helfer even tweeted a photo of her book, along with a lunch she was munching on, while sitting in a hospital waiting room. I guess this is a mix of nerdy fanboy exhilaration, voyeurism, and a sense of joy that yet another person is experiencing these wonderful books for the first time.

Digging deeper into your favorite author’s imagination

Has an author ever presented you with a character who captures your imagination only to bring that character’s arc to a conclusion that feels premature? You’re left feeling like there is more to the character’s story. Well, if you go digging you might just find that the author has more to say about that character.

Reading an author’s various works can be like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. You might read a novel or a series of novels, and think you have the whole story as conceived by the author. You could very well be wrong. Many writers develop characters, themes, and settings over time with a variety of published and unpublished work before writing a larger novel.

Alastair Reynolds, the Welsh author of scifi space opera, is best known for his “Revelation Space” books, a trilogy of future history novels about humanity’s desperate (and I mean desperate) struggle against a mysterious force in the galaxy that is bent on exterminating advanced intelligent life. The trilogy includes Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. Nevil Clavain is a pivotal character in the two later novels in the series, an ancient war hero who has lived through centuries of history thanks to a combination of the time-distortion effects of near-light speed space travel, several stints in suspended animation and bioengineering. Clavain is complex. He’s come from a faction of humanity that Reynolds initially presents as menacing and villainous, but Clavain himself is heroic. His character has a lot of back story that is teased out over the course of the novels but a close reading of the book should tell you that this author has spent a lot of time with Clavain. You know that history is there, waiting to be explored, because Reynolds has imbued Clavain with a deep sense of melancholy born out of longevity. Clavain has lived too long and lost too much over the centuries and it weighs heavily on his shoulders.

Fortunately, Reynolds has explored Clavain’s universe beyond the major trilogy of Revelation Space. There are two standalone books which Clavain doesn’t figure in as far as I know. But Reynolds has also published a good number of  short stories and novellas, and many of them are truly companion pieces to the trilogy. Casual fans will miss them unless they go looking for them.

Sometimes an author will use the short story form as the seed for a novel, incorporating the story as a chapter in the larger book. A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham is a good example of this. The New Yorker published his short story “White Angel” in 1988. This tragic coming of age story about the bond between two brothers has a fully formed narrative that in itself is a powerful exploration of fraternal love and profound loss. Cunningham later used this entire story as an early chapter in the larger book, the events in the short story serving as the formative series of events in the life of one of the main characters which drives his actions throughout the novel.

Reynolds, in contrast, has written a variety of short stories and novellas set in the universe he created in his “Revelation Space” novels. These stories explore other aspects of characters and concepts featured in the trilogy and they were written before, during and after the writing of the trilogy. Many of them were collected in Galactic North, which was published in 2006. In this collection you’ll find two stories about Nevil Clavain that take place centuries before the events of the trilogy: “Great Wall of Mars” and “Glacial.” Clavain is already an old man, a war hero who is tired of battle. In “Great Wall of Mars” he sets out on a diplomatic mission to ease tensions between his people and the Conjoiners, the cybernetically-enhanced faction of humanity who have used neural implants to join themselves together in a collective consciousness. Anyone who has read the “Revelation Space” trilogy knows that Clavain ultimately switches sides and joins the Conjoiners. This is the story of how that happens. This is also the story of how he learns to trust the leader of the Conjoiners, Galiana, who doesn’t really appear as herself in the trilogy. But her absence weights heavily on Clavain in the trilogy. He remembers her as perhaps the great love her his life. In this story and in “Glacial,” Reynolds explores the early years of Clavain’s transition into Conjoiner society and the development of his relationship with Galiana.

Galactic North also explores some other aspects of the early history of the “Revelation Space” universe and it illuminates the end of the final book in the series, Absolution Gap. I admit that the end of that third book confused me quite a bit. Reading the story eponymous story in Reynolds’ collection, “Galactic North,” helps to clarify some of that confusion, but I’m still parsing through it. Still, reading that story helped me make some sense of the parts of the book which had left me confused. Ultimately I enjoyed reading Reynolds short story collection for the two pieces about Clavain. They gave me the opportunity to spend a little more time with the character and to understand him more fully.

So the next time you read a book or books you really enjoy and are left wishing for more to read about the characters and ideas in those books, look around. See what other things the author has written. Maybe he has some short stories published in a magazine or on his website or in some collection that explore other aspects of the characters and places that you loved so much in the original work. You might find it rewarding.

This Immortal: A SciFi novel that could teach today’s writers a few things

This weekend the World Science Fiction Society declared a tie in the voting for its prestigious Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl shared the award. This reminded me of another couple of books that shared the same award more than four decades ago in 1966. One of them, Frank Herbert’s Dune, has gone on to enjoy countless re-printings, multiple sequels and several film adaptations. The other book is out of print and barely remembered. I’m talking about This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny.

This Immortal‘s out-of-print status is unfortunate because the little book offers a couple of valuable lessons to contemporary SciFi authors.

First of all, brevity can be a virtue.

I admit it. I enjoy a long-winded space opera as much as any geek, as long as it’s well-written. Dune is one of the granddaddies of the genre. Herbert slowly pushes his coterie of interesting characters through an excellent plot. But those characters must also trudge through hundreds of pages of back story and thousands of years of fictional history.

In other words, the author immerses the reader fully in his fictional universe. It’s a delight, but it’s also a commitment to plow through all those pages.

With This Immortal, Zelazny takes a different approach. Where Herbert is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Zelazny is Ernest Hemingway. His prose is straightforward and to the point. The book is largely driven by dialog rather than exposition. And rather than running for 700 or 800 pages, This Immortal is barely more than 200 pages.

The short science fiction novel has become a lost art form. So many writers feel the need to build a universe for their stories and plot gets lost in the back story. Zelazny avoids this trap. He offers just hints of a back story: His main character, Konrad, seems to be immortal. His immortality could be a mutation or he could be a god. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, but the when, why and how are left vague. The survivors are caretakers, trying to keep control of the Earth away from a mostly benevolent race of aliens who look at the Earth as a tourist destination. That’s most of the back story right there, and Zelazny delivers it in 10 or 15 pages scattered through the book.

The second lesson of This Immortal is even more vital. Don’t be afraid to defy the conventions of your chosen genre. Zelazny’s book is a post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t bleak.

So many SciFi writers are slaves to their genres. The space opera and the sword and sorcery fantasy must be epic, grandiose and serious-minded. How else are you going to create a sense of wonder? And post-apocalyptic novels? They have to be bleak and scary. Maybe there will be a little hope for redemption, but generally the characters are screwed.

Zelazny steps away from these tropes. This Immortal has hints of whimsy and magic. Konrad, his immortal protagonist, is mischievous, sarcastic and gallant all at once. He could be a freak of nature, or he could be a god. He’s not very sure, himself.

The nuclear-devastated Earth is scarred by radiation and filled with terribly mutated creatures and vast, uninhabitable regions. Yet hope isn’t lost. Those humans who survived have found a way to live decent, happy lives. Some of the mutated people and animals take the shapes of mythological creatures like centaurs and satyrs, creating some ambiguity in the novel. Has nuclear devastation opened the door to a return to the age of immortal gods and magical beings? Or are these hints of magic and wonder some cruel, cosmic coincidence? Adding just the possibility of magic changes up the nature of the standard post-apocalyptic form by replacing the bleakness with whimsical ambiguity.

These are lessons that some genre writers should keep in mind. Short and sweet can be just fine. Hints at a back story can be enough. Let readers fill in the gaps. Also, changing up the tropes of a genre can be refreshing… Indeed, it made this 44-year-old novel a breath of fresh air.