- - May 29th, 2013
Since we heard that the illustrious John Scalzi was a super-mega-fan of the Acts of Caine novels by Matthew Stover, (which starts with HEROES DIE), we asked him if he wanted to interview Matthew . . .
When I was told that Orbit Books was releasing the entire Acts of Caine series in the UK, I let out a cheer. I am, unapologetically, a huge fan of this series of books, full as they are of action, adventure and grippingly written violence – along with classic dystopian themes, observantly written (and massively, compellingly flawed) characters, and world-building I’m jealous of as a writer even as I’m impressed with it as a reader. This is the series that put its author Matthew Stover on my map as someone whose books I had to read, no matter what he was writing.
Orbit asked me if I wanted to interview him on the occasion of the release of his books. Yes. Yes I did. Here it is.
John Scalzi: Heroes Die, the first book in the Caine series, in many ways presaged the current wave of “grimdark” fantasy – those works with lots of unapologetic action and violence threaded into their tales. At the time you were writing the book, were you aware you were slashing a new path through that particular jungle? Or were you just focused on writing a story you wanted to tell?
Matthew Stover: I wasn’t trying to do something new. I was only trying to do something good.
I started writing the story that eventually became Heroes Die when I was seventeen. A variety of versions were submitted to, and summarily rejected by, a variety of publishers over the course of the next eighteen years. I tried every approach I could think of to make the story appealing to editors, but nothing worked. Finally – in despair – I said to myself, “Screw this sh*t. If it’s going to fail anyway, write the goddamn thing exactly how you want it to be. At least you’ll have that.” So I did. And here we are.
This is why my first advice to younger writers is to write the book you wish somebody else would write so you could read it.
JS: You also, and very unusually, have created a series of books that are both science fiction and fantasy, as opposed to choosing to be on one side of that (in my opinion, often arbitrary) line. For me as a reader, that felt almost revolutionary – not in an excessive “have your cake and eat it too” sort of way, but in that it allows you to world-build two separate but vital universes, and build stories in the tension between the two. But from the practical point of view as a writer – well, it’s a lot of work. Talk a little about your world-building strategies and why it was you chose to straddle the two genres in this series – and the challenges you have in making sure the two universes are balanced in service to the story.
MS: It has been a lot of work. But, y’know, I wrote these four books over the course of about fifteen years, which leaves plenty of time for things to develop more-or-less organically. Much of the world-building is a by-product of thinking about other stories I might want to tell in that milieu – even if I never write the stories, their background features remain.
I chose the dual-world structure because one of the themes that seem to underlie all my original work has to do with the role of imagination in creating our experience of reality. When I was a kid, I was very taken with de Camp and Pratt’s Harold Shea stories – psychologists who find a way to transport themselves into mythical (later, outright fictional) realms through some hand-waving involving symbolic logic. These stories make crystal clear the fact (bleedingly obvious, in retrospect) that fantasy is the map of human psychology. I wanted a Real World to contrast with the Fantasy World, but I wanted the Fantasy World to be real too. After all, dreams are themselves real things, even though the experiences we have in them are products of our own imaginations (pacé various mystical traditions).
And I didn’t really choose to combine two genres, because I don’t believe they’re really separate. Science fiction is a subset of fantasy (as is all literature, after all). Heinlein wrote stories with magic in them. So did Larry Niven. And Poul Anderson. Fritz Leiber wrote some straight SF. I write stories that have (some) science and (some) social extrapolation in them. And magic too. Though I usually tell people I’m a science fiction writer, because when I tell them I write fantasy, I have to endure some variation of the following conversation:
“Really? Like Lord of the Rings?”
“No, not like Lord of the Rings.”
“Like Harry Potter, then.”
“No, like Star Wars.”
“But Star Wars is science fiction.”
“Look, what do you call it when a young knight is given his father’s magic sword by an old wizard and then sent off on a quest to defeat the Dark Lord?”
“I call it fantasy.”
“No, you call it Star Wars, Einstein. Now shut up before I unscrew your head and drop-kick it into a parallel dimension.”
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- - March 18th, 2013
The war is lost. The stone mage wakes. One slave will defy him . . .
Ian Irvine’s REBELLION (UK|US|ANZ) is released this week, an epic fantasy novel in which characters Tali and Rix lead the revolution against an evil sorcerer’s corrupt regime. In this second volume in Ian’s Tainted Realm trilogy, former slave Tali must return to her underground homeland to free her people, while Rix battles besieging armies above.
We thought we’d celebrate REBELLION with a post on the long tradition of rebellions in fiction – here are some of the most iconic rebels we’ve found . . . but who are your favourites?
Lucifer – Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.
Milton’s charismatic depiction of Lucifer battling his creator in PARADISE LOST caused strong feelings in all who read it –William Blake said he was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Milton definitely gave Lucifer all the best lines! One of literature’s first anti-heroes, Milton’s Lucifer influenced writers from the Romantic Poets to modern fantasy authors such as Philip Pullman, Anne Rice and Neil Gaiman.
Robin Hood and the Merry Men – He was a good outlawe, and dyde pore men moch god.
Was this Nottingham-based outlaw actually fictional? Was he a peasant or disowned aristocrat? Did he prefer a sword or a bow? We can’t be sure – so much has been lost to history! Our first written record of ‘Robyn Hode’ is found in a ballad dated around 1450, and the tale has grown since then – it’s no wonder – an outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor is an attractive fantasy even now.
Friends of the ABC – Do you hear the people sing?
The resistance group in Victor Hugo’s LES MISÉRABLES has become something of a symbol for doomed and idealistic youth. These ill-fated young students ultimately die on the barricades, the June Rebellion in which they took part defeated by the soldiers of King Louis Philippe I. The group’s name is a pun on ‘abaissés’ – a word in French meaning lowly or abased, which when pronounced sounds much like the first three letters of the alphabet.
The Rebel Alliance – It’s a trap!
How could we leave out the ultimate sci-fi dissidents, The Rebel Alliance, a.k.a. ‘Rebel scum’? The Alliance to Restore the Republic numbers characters such as Luke, Leia and Han Solo among its members, and was formed by senators who disagreed with Emperor Palpatine’s power grabbing ways – although some versions of STAR WARS canon actually imply that the Emperor himself had a hand in making it, never imagining that it would become a serious threat…
V – Remember, remember the Fifth of November…
Alan Moore’s graphic novel V FOR VENDETTA featured this alphabet-obsessed anarchist, the valiant, violent and vengeful V. Corrupt politicians beware! Moore drew on influence such as George Orwell’s 1984 and the contemporary politics of Thatcher and Reagan in creating his dystopian Britain. The Guy Fawkes mask worn by this character has been adopted as a symbol by the activist group Anonymous, and the masks have been worn at political protests all around the world.
- - December 21st, 2012
With the entire Sten Chronicles soon to be available in our Orbit omnibus editions – that’s BATTLECRY (UK|ANZ) containing books 1-3, JUGGERNAUT (UK|ANZ) containing books 4-6 and DEATH MATCH (UK|ANZ) containing books 7-8 – we got thinking about Sten’s humble beginnings and his rise to power.
In his previous guestpost Allan Cole described Sten as a ‘working class hero’ (like the John Lennon song!) and we wondered who else might qualify. We can’t all be heirs to large fortunes like Batman, Harry Potter or Lara Croft, (some of us can barely even make like a Lannister and pay our debts), so here are our top ten good guys who didn’t start off in life with many advantages at all . . .
Commander Vimes (Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series)
Commander Vimes grew up in the Shades of Ankh Morpork, describing his family as lucky to live on a street so poor that there just wasn’t very much for the infamous criminal gangs of the Shades to steal.
Since his aristocratic marriage and his successes in running the City Watch, Vimes has been bestowed with many noble titles (including but not limited to “His Grace,” “His Excellency” and “his blackboard-monitorship”). Never has a man resented being part of ‘the gentry’ so much. One would almost think the Patrician was annoying him on purpose.
Rand al’Thor (Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series)
Rand al’Thor originally lived a simple life as a farmer’s son in the sleepy village of Emond’s Field, where his biggest concern was trying to talk to girls without making a fool of himself. His life changed forever one night when the forces of darkness showed up and showed a keen interest in running him through with a blade.
Turns out that Rand is the Dragon Reborn, the saviour who is prophesied to save the world from the Dark One . . . but destroy it in the process. No pressure there, then.
Han Solo (Star Wars)
He might have married a princess and helped save the galaxy, but Han Solo had a rough start as an orphaned street urchin in a Corellian spaceport. Things were looking up when he became a pilot for the Imperial Navy, but he lost his commission when he defied orders and refused to skin a Wookiee named Chewbacca.
The two won the Millennium Falcon from the smuggler Lando Calrissian in a card game and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Weasley family (Harry Potter)
Draco Malfoy said that ‘all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.’ They also have a whole lot of courage, room in their hearts to take in the orphaned Harry Potter and the courage to stand up to bullies like the Malfoys and other, richer ‘pureblooded’ wizards during both of Voldemort’s uprisings.
We couldn’t pick a favourite Weasley (who can?), so we decided we’d include the whole lot.
Davos Seaworth, (George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’)
Born in the Flea Bottom slums of King’s Landing, as a young man Davos captained a notorious smuggling ship. During Robert’s Rebellion he saved many lives by smuggling in food during the siege of Storm’s End castle.
Stannis Baratheon knighted him for this, which got him the nickname ‘the Onion Knight’, but demanded a grisly punishment for Davos’s earlier crimes, the ends of his fingers on one hand! Davos considered this fair, as long as Stannis carried out the punishment himself, and his continued loyalty is shown when he supports Stannis’s claim to the throne.
Rose Tyler (Doctor Who)
Rose grew up on a South London estate, living with her mother Jackie and working at Henrik’s Department Store. When the shop was attacked by aliens disguised as shop mannequins, she was saved by the Doctor and joined him in his travels in the TARDIS – saving his life in return when she worked out the meaning behind the strange words that had been following the duo through time – ‘Bad Wolf’.
Rose has met aliens, travelled backwards and forwards in time as well as visiting other dimensions, but she’s never forgotten her roots – she was the first of the Doctor’s companions to have her mobile phone modified so she could keep in touch with her mum. Read the rest of this entry »
I create and write a lot of non-human characters, and when I call them all “people” I’m not being politically correct. Whether the character’s an extra-terrestrial, a non-human animal, or an artificial intelligence, he, she, or it has to resonate with readers or players enough for them to understand what’s happening and why. The audience needs points of common reference: all of us do, and the novel is a form that’s very much about the human condition, even if some or all of those humans aren’t human at all. All storytelling – written, spoken, drawn, played — is about producing a feeling in the audience, regardless of the medium.
A creature that’s genuinely alien would by definition be so far outside our understanding that we’d struggle to find any common points. It’s perfectly possible to write a book about the completely impenetrable mystery of an alien life-form, but then the story becomes about the people observing it, not the aliens themselves. We might like to think we’re very different from other animals on our own planet, but we’re not, and the more that biologists have put aside our cultural biases about humans being unique, the more they’ve found we all have in common — communication, emotion, and even mathematical skill.
So novels are about people, using human reactions as a benchmark for the audience, even if the non-humans view the world very differently. What matters is their internal logic — why they see the world as they do — and the points where they mesh with or clash with us. I approach non-human characters exactly the same was as I do human ones, starting with their environment and, for want of a better word, biology. What kind of creature would live in this world? What would it need to do to thrive? What would its needs and fears be? I have to be able to get inside every character’s head and see the world as they see it, because that’s what my stories are — every character’s thought processes and experiences, seen through their own eyes, not through mine. As in real life, characters see the same situation in very different and often conflicting ways, and aliens and other non-humans are one of the richest ways of observing this.
I’ve created an alien species, the Wess’har, whose evolutionary survival strategy was cooperation rather than competition, but it didn’t make them remotely friendly to humans. I’m currently writing an AI character who has no corporeal form but is constantly looking for analogues in his own systems to reach a better understanding of the humans he works with. In another series, I have non-humans who are actually very human indeed, in that their worst excesses are in fact mirrors of our own that the humans in the story don’t even recognise. Read the rest of this entry »