Finding Fantasy In the Past – The World

When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.

Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.

Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.

This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.

The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.

And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.

With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.

Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.

Is It Time For SF And Fantasy To Split?

Over on the Borders Babel Clash blog, I’ve been putting forward the idea that it’s time for fantasy and SF to go their separate ways:

It makes me wonder, though, if it’s time for fantasy and SF to dissolve the marriage of convenience. They came together in an age when there was a limited number of speculative fiction books on the shelves and the two genres huddled together for support. But as Charlie Stross points out, they’re very different in outlook – one stares out to the world, one peers into the unconscious.

When a good number of authors and readers of one genre openly sneer at the other genre, that’s probably a good time to disentangle them at the level of marketing, conventions, societies and the rest. Fantasy has more in common with horror, and urban fantasy which straddles the two. And that would leave SF to be “pure” which a lot of its supporters seem to want.

Of course, members of the SF community who speak openly about that kind of thing might find it a double-edged sword. Fantasy thrives in sales terms, and those big secondary world epics that Charlie Stross mocks give a lot of bookstore cover to what may be perceived as the more challenging of the SF fare – especially at a time when three senior editors (two in the US, one in the UK) tell me they’re no longer really in the market for SF for sales reasons.

Inspiration For Writing

You don’t want to seem like a nutter when you’re on public radio. So when the host asks me – as they always do – where do you get your ideas from, I steer clear of the truthful answer: “psychic connections through the aether” or “hypnagogic messages dictated by our mysterious overlords“. I usually mutter something about stumbling across an interesting fact. Always go for the boring option. It keeps you out of the coats with no arms.

But we can speak honestly here. We all know about the mysterious connections in life. The stuff that goes on behind all those scientific processes. The weird, inexplicable occurrences lurking in the corners of day-to-day existence. The gods and imps and fairies and demons that we like to call other things because, you know, that whole coats with no arms thing…

When I say “the universe speaks to me”, I mean it speaks to all writers, all musicians, all artists. We each tend to put a different face on it, but it’s the same voice. So where do my gods and fairies and demons lurk?

In pubs with stone and timber and glowering locals and beer with strange names. In deep rural life which city folk think is backward, but is wild and dangerous and so removed it might as well be another planet. In bands that you might stumble across in the back rooms of pubs and never hear from again. In stone circles, crumbling ruins, lonely pools, old houses. Across those city liminal zones – industrial estates under sodium at 3am, empty, broken-windowed factories and wasteground with rainbow-streaked puddles. In black-faced, mirror-glassed morris men and biker gangs. In snatches of music heard after midnight. In moots and meets and markets held under moonlight. These are the places where stories are born. These are the locations where my writing gods live.

And for a specific example, here’s one of the inspirations for Age of Misrule

The Dancing Did remain one of my favourite bands, a quarter of a century after they split up. Characterised as “neo rustic pagan bop” or “a cross between The Clash and Steeleye Span”, you can find out more about them here.

Their album, And Did Those Feet, is little-known but essential, particularly if you like fantasy or any of those things I listed above. The lyrics are clever, witty and poetic and deal with ancient things encroaching on the modern world – listen to ‘The Wolves of Worcestershire‘ or ‘Charnel Boy‘. A remixed version with a booklet and additional tracks is available from Cherry Red.

The Dancing Did’s thematic equivalent today may well be Cornish collective Kemper Norton though the music is very, very different. I came across them through the regular ravings of Warren Ellis, another fan. More inspiration. I bet they never imagined they’d be dragging a story about Elizabethan spies and Faerie into the light…

Fantasy vs SF: Who Let The Dogs Out?

Mark Charan Newton, actually.

Over on his blog, Mark has incited a firestorm with the posting “Why Science Fiction is dying and Fantasy Fiction is the future”, which has attracted fierce responses from Charles Stross, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts and many others.

Here’s my response:

Surely there is no finer sport than ramming sharpened stakes into the cages of the SF community!

And yet, there *is* an SF community, with reasonably definable boundaries and consumption patterns. In its natural habitat, the SF reader will graze easily across hard SF, space opera, military SF, literary SF, wherever both science and fiction combine.

There is no fantasy community, and this, I think, is where your initial premise breaks down, Mark.

There is NO connective tissue between what has been branded as urban fantasy and secondary world fantasy, anecdotally little crossover in readership, and generally very little love lost between the two camps. Urban Fantasy has more in common with the romance genre (always a big seller) and the romantic fringes of 80s horror, and is a better fit under the Paranormal Romance banner. Yes, there are fantastic elements, but horror is a sub-genre of fantasy, but we don’t lump that in when we discuss this issue.

Strip out “urban fantasy” and there’s not such a great disparity in sales between fantasy and SF. But that still doesn’t leave a fantasy community. There are a lot of authors writing broadly tales of the fantastic outside the secondary world area – the majority are never likely to have big sales (the area they write in – the huge sweep of the imagination – is too unfocused to be branded), but they have a consistent readership. Many readers of secondary world fantasy aren’t hugely interested in them, and often see them as part of a different, unnamed genre too.

What we now call secondary world fantasy is the only true fantasy community. It’s the area where the biggest sales lie because it’s built on the twin foundations of Tolkien and gaming, which provides a constant stream of new readers through the gates. (There’s probably an academic paper to be written on how many authors in this field based their works on their teenage and twenty-something gaming inventions…) More importantly, it has boundaries defined by the community itself.

So really when we talk about SF vs fantasy, we’re talking about SF vs secondary world fantasy. That undercuts the initial argument even more, because I was told by a publisher very recently that sales of secondary world fantasy are also in decline – slow, certainly, at the moment, but consistent. Fewer secondary world fantasies are going to be bought. The argument then becomes, which is declining faster – “fantasy” or SF, and that’s not a very fun argument at all.

Part of the sales decline is due to the intense, and accelerating, change in society, where communities are breaking down into increasingly small self-identifiable units. It’s something the music and TV industries have already wrestled with – there are no “rock” fans any more, but a vast number of tiny tribes that shelter under the rock banner. Viewing figures for TV shows plummet as the makers increasingly have to micro-target.

The challenge for the big publishers is how they’re going to build a business model that is acceptable to their shareholders when genres continue to fragment (in fantasy, say, to apocalyptic fantasy, heroic fantasy, magic-based fantasy, historical fantasy) with less and less boundary crossing and subsequently a lower ceiling of potential sales (ans: they can’t). It’s an issue that smaller publishers like Solaris and Angry Robot were specifically set up to tackle.

But in this area, I think, SF is better placed to thrive in the long term because its community is broader and more cohesive, and there is much more micro-boundary crossing to keep sales up.

Urban Fantasy: Vampires Kill Elves

Publisher and always-readable genre commentator Tim Holman reveals the full scale of the change that is sweeping through fantasy in his blog The Publisher Files. A lot has been made of how fantasy book sales are booming, but it now seems that the vast proportion of this is down to urban fantasy. Definitions are always hard to come by when you get into the sewers of genre classification, but I think what we’re talking about here is the books of, say, Charlaine Harris, which are burning up the charts in the UK on the back of True Blood, as opposed to traditional fantasy in an urban setting.

Not only that, but the trend is increasing. With sales of urban fantasy rising, Tim makes the point that it’s only natural that publishers will follow the dollar/pound/euro/whatever and buy less epic fantasy and more of the thing that most readers want.

Genres always move in cycles. Stories get tired and readers get jaded as publishers heap on more of the same. But for me, urban fantasy is really the new horror – the successor to the Stephen King-fuelled horror boom of the eighties, and drawing in some of the same kind of readers who walked away when that cycle died.

Which does cast an interesting light on next year’s World Horror Convention. The convention seems completely to have ignored urban fantasy and opted for a celebration of horror that is rooted firmly in the distant past, if the guest of honour list is anything to go by. At the least it’s a missed opportunity. At the most it’s a comment on why horror is perceived as a dying genre by many in the industry.

Elric – The Heavy Metal Years

For all you sword and sorcery fans, here’s some rare footage of fantasy great Michael Moorcock joining space cadets Hawkwind to intone his Elric poem/lyrics on stage.

Moorcock was a part of Hawkwind for several years, and the band’s Chronicle of the Black Sword album was heavily influenced by his work. Cherry Red records recently secured the rights to release all of Hawkwind’s material, which had been unavailable for many years. More details at the Cherry Red site.